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Regardless of how we would like it to be, parents are always the primary models for what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior and attitudes. Our kids watch us all of the time and what we do always makes more of an impact than what we say. After all, if Mom or Dad is behaving in a certain way, that behavior must be acceptable and correct. Sorry – but the old "do as I say, not as I do" – is not only a ridiculous statement to make, but it is also extremely counterproductive and confusing to a child.

I was reminded of this a few weeks ago when I saw a woman in the center aisle of Wallmart slapping, hitting, and jerking a young boy around. She was red-faced and was yelling at the top of her voice, "I TOLD YOU HOW TO BEHAVE AT THE STORE! I"LL SHOW YOU!"  She became so far out of control that she was finally asked to leave by store personnel. She was certainly showing the boy how to behave in a public place! What the child is likely to remember is how mom acted in a public place – not what she had said earlier about "behaving in public."  

Our children are always paying attention to us to see how we behave, what we do, and how we solve problems. Children are trying to understand their world and therefore are much more observant than we may think.

Now that you understand the general principle, let's go a little deeper.

Here are some questions and comments for you to think about. While each example will not apply to every parent and to every situation, the principles and concepts will. Just thinking about these areas – perhaps for some of you for the first time - will be helpful for you. Remember that while modeling has its greatest impact on young children, it applies to all age ranges as well.

-If you constantly have a drink in your hand as you talk about your "hard day" or "need to relax" or your "problem" – what are you teaching your child? Should you really be surprised later in life when your child turns to alcohol as a problem solver – or needs to "relax"?

-If you are constantly popping pills to "relax" in front of your child to get through the day – should you be surprised later when your child turns to drugs? (If you need to take these types of medications – take them in private) By the way, taking medication for illnesses is a very different situation. This is actually a positive role model situation as it shows the child that even Mom or Dad has to take medicine when they are sick.

-If you fight with your significant other or throw things in anger in front of your child, what are you teaching your child about how Moms and Dads should act and treat each other? (If you need to fight – try and do it in private!)

-If you are in an abusive relationship – what is a son learning about to act as a husband when he grows up? What is a daughter learning about what Moms and Dads should be like? It is a sad fact that many women raised in an abusive relationship marry into one when they are older. Men raised in abusive relations also tend to be abusive later in their own relationships. That is why we thought it was genetic for so long – it seemed to usually continue on in later generations. Now I realize that many parents – especially women – can be in an abusive relationship that for a variety of reasons, is extremely difficult for them to get out of.  This does not however change the reality that there will be a high probability of emotional damage being done to the child. Some children seem to survive these situations emotionally unharmed – most do not. If you find yourself in an abusive relationship, get out as soon as you can! There are many community agencies out there to help you get through this.

-Smoking is another good example of modeling. Do you smoke in front of your children and then tell them that they should never smoke because it is bad for them? Be honest – do you really believe that they will believe those admonitions as they watch you smoke? If you need to smoke – smoke out of sight of the child if possible.

-When you tell your child that you care about them, and what they do, and where they are at, and if they are safe, do they actually see you check on them on a regular basis – or ask them questions? Sometimes a simple "You doing all right out there?" added to your peek out the window or door lets a child know that you are watching over them. You would be surprised if you knew how many parents loose all track of their kids – especially during the teenage years. I'm sure you have seen the stories on the news where a distressed parent says something like, "I had no idea that he was building a bomb for the last six months in our basement! – or – "He was such a nice boy, I didn't know he was killing and torturing little animals like that in his room since he was six!" Now, I am not implying that you need to know what your child is doing every minute of every day. Some parental oversight of your child's activities is required however. Not only should you generally know where your child is and what they are doing, but the child should know by your questions and presence that you do in fact care and that you are indeed watching over them.

-I saved the most controversial area of this topic for last. Some of you may find that this area tweaks your ego a bit. Good! The topic is; Time Spent with your Child. It should be apparent that to model anything you need to be present. You can be sure that if you are not providing the model – someone else (usually a peer) certainly is. As many of you already know, accomplishing this critical function can be extremely difficult and challenging. This is particularly true in single-parent homes and situations where both parents work. National data suggests that there are strong national trends of more fathers walking out of the family – more mothers walking out on the family – and dramatic overall increases in the divorce and separation rate. It is absolutely vital that you carve out a few hours each week to spend just with your child. What you do is not that important – being there and providing your child with your undivided attention is. I defy any parent to prove that they can not find a few hours in a typical week just for their child. Be creative! The possibilities are endless – let them help cook – or help place the order out – or help wash the car – turn the TV off and just talk - or read a story with them. Realizing this need in your child is the first important step. You would not believe how many parents I have had in my office over the years say something like, "I work hard all week! So I go and party with my friends on the weekends. Don't I deserve some fun? What about ME!" Well, what about you? What about your child that has no choices? How about being a parent!
Being there is the primal way of showing that you care and modeling what a parent does. You may have to think about this a bit – but with some effort on your part, the time will appear.

I hope that this has provided you with some food for thought. How often do you model things for your child that you really do not want them to imitate?  How often do you even think about this subject?

You will get better results and fewer problems later in life if you can adopt a "Do as I do and do as I say" approach. That style better approaches the reality of a child's development and perceptions.  

About The Author
James is a Masters level Child Psychologist and Internationally Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor who has worked with distressed families for 40 years. He is the author of the Seamus the Sheltie series of children's books that were designed to assist parents in discussing difficult issues with younger children. Both books have received multiple national awards from parenting organizations. Mr. Beverly has written and published articles on parenting in a variety of media.

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