It's late afternoon, and you've just told your 9-year-old to take out the trash. As he heads out the door, you hear him mumbling under his breath like Yosemite Sam in "Loony Tunes." As you start to admonish him for his attitude, you realize that he's simply doing the same thing as you when you are feeling overwhelmed with household chores.
The example you set for your child is critical, because each day, "You're modeling behavioral expectations for your child," says Mitchie Kenney, L.S.S.P., school psychologist for Nacogdoches Independent School District in Texas. The adage, "Do what I say, not as I do," simply doesn't work when it comes to effective parenting, no matter how often parents might wish it were true.
Generally, the reality that the example you set plays such a strong role in determining your child's behavior is a good thing. For example, your child notices when you accidentally bump into another shopper's cart at the grocery store and apologize or generously allow another person with fewer items to get in front of you in line.
"Children are always watching us," says Kenney. "They always want to know how we are going to handle a situation." Whenever you model self-control with your voice or react to a stressful situation with grace, you're teaching your child how to navigate through life's more difficult pathways.
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In a perfect world, parents would always set a good example. Learning that the toys are still on the floor after you've told your child repeatedly to pick them up might find you muttering, "I feel like throwing these in the trash" -- a comment that would understandably alarm your child.
Don't beat yourself up when you slip but seek to build your own awareness and keep an open line of communication with your child. "The perfect parent does not exist," says Kenney. "We are all human; we are all going to mess up. We all have bad days."
Sometimes parental behaviors can set the stage for emotionally disturbed behavior in a child. For example, a child who sees a parent use verbal or physical aggression to solve a problem is likely to repeat the behavior when playing with friends. When a child witnesses a parent consistently overeat, smoke or drink alcohol excessively, fear can be introduced into the relationship. A child might become concerned that the parent is harming his health, for example, or become afraid of the parent's behavior after he has been drinking.
When these situations exist within a family, it is important that the "child learns that the parent is using a bad coping skill," says Kenney. In some cases, outside intervention may be necessary to help the child overcome the effects of a parent's poor modeling.
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When You've Messed Up
Kenney emphasizes the importance of open communication in a family. "An important thing is to always come back and give closure to a situation," she says. "You can't just slam a door and everyone goes their parting ways. Always come back and apologize if necessary. Parents need to be able to admit when they've lost control and say, 'I'm really sorry. I should not have done that. I'm not going to do that anymore.'"
Encourage a younger child to talk about a situation that you don't want him to find acceptable such as the time you yelled "Fine!" at your husband and walked out the door, slamming it behind you so hard the house shook. Using toys or drawings to talk about the situation can help a preschool child to express his feelings about what happened and give you the chance to talk about your behavior, explaining why it wasn't right.