“Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.”

– James Baldwin

Most of us know that kids will repeat things we say, which is why many people try to watch their language when kids are around. But kids learn more from us than just a few choice words; they learn how to behave in certain situations, as well as learning positive (and negative) attributes and skills. Every day you are teaching your children by example how to react to situations, and if you are not conscious of what you are doing you may be teaching them something you don’t want them to learn.


The process of teaching by example is called modeling and it affects behavior far more than telling your children what to do (and far more than punishing them, too).

Modeling can teach a child how to:

  • handle conflict
  • react to stress or fear
  • interact with others

There is a fabulous article on Teaching Children Respect by Pam Leo on the Natural Child Project website. Here are a couple of powerful messages from that article:

  • 95% of everything children learn, they learn from what is modeled for them. Only 5% of all they learn is from direct instruction.
  • The language children grow up hearing is the language they will speak.

If we expect children to have manners, to share, to apologize, to be honest, kind, respectful, and loving, we must do and be those things so they will have that model to imitate. For example:

  • If we expect children to always say please and thank you, we must always say please and thank you to them and to each other, otherwise we are modeling that sometimes you say it and sometimes you don’t.
  • If we want to teach them gratitude, we need to practice gratitude every day in many situations.

It may sound silly, but in our house we say thank you to everyone all the time.

  • Thank you daddy for making breakfast.
  • Thanks for doing the dishes, hon.
  • Thanks for helping me with ____.
  • Thanks for picking up your toys.
  • Thanks for watching him so I could go for a run.

And on and on and on. We try to live gratitude for everything so that it becomes a normal part of life.

Kids are Kids

Modeling does not always dictate a child’s behavior; your kids won’t inevitably do everything you do. But it is an important and underappreciated way to transmit information, experiences, skills, beliefs, values, and large segments of behavior.

My Story

This finally clicked for me when I started hearing my 3-year-old son say things and seeing him do things that I know I have done (yes, both positive and negative). I am immensely proud of the positive things he has said and done and I inwardly cringe at the negative things he did. It was both a great reward and another reminder to think before I react.

I’d like to share a couple of the positive things I’ve seen him say and do, ones that actually kind of shocked me:

  • When I showed him a card I made he said, “Oh wow. It’s neat. I like it. Good job.” He was naturally supportive because he has heard the same thing from me in the same type of situation.
  • When I get hurt he says, “Are you OK mama? Don’t worry. It will feel better in a few minutes.” And gives me kisses. He responds with genuine concern because he’s seen it many times from us.
  • We have taught him to express his feelings and one time when we were having issues he said, “Are you mad at me? I still love you.” This comes from other times he knows I am upset with him, but I always make it a point to say that I love him.
  • Whenever I pick him up from pre-school he always asks me, “So what did you do today? Did you have fun at home? How was your coffee?” He has picked up this habit from me always asking him about his day when we’ve been apart.
  • When we came home after an evening out, he was in our bed sleeping. He stirred when we came in and said, “I’m so glad you’re back. Did you have fun?” He has heard us say this to him whenever we have been apart.
  • After having a discussion about him yelling at me he said (completely without prompting), “I’m sorry for yelling at you.” He has learned this from me. I am not a perfect parent; I’m also not afraid of apologizing to my son when I have been wrong. Since he has watched me apologize to him, he knows how and when to do it also.

Why Practice Positive Modeling? It’s About Respecting Children

The old saying “Do as I say, don’t do as I do” not only doesn’t work, it also brings mistrust into the relationship.

Children have all the same feelings we do. The same kind of treatment that would embarrass, humiliate or hurt us, embarrasses, humiliates, and hurts children. When adults try to “teach” children by criticizing, lecturing, shaming, ridiculing, giving orders, screaming, threatening, and hitting, it shuts down their thinking so they can’t learn what the adult intended to teach them to do or not to do; they can only record what is being modeled.

Learning to treat children with respect will require a change of heart that can come only from a major shift in consciousness of how we view children and how we define respect. But once we start treating children with respect, they will learn how to treat others with respect.

However we treat the child, the child will treat the world. -Pam Leo

Treat Friends, Kids the Same

There is a neat article written by Erma Bombeck titled “Treat Friends, Kids the Same” in which she imagines having friends over for dinner and saying to them all those things that most of us heard growing up and therefore, say to children:

  • “Shut the door. Were you born in a barn?”
  • “I didn’t work over a hot stove all day to have you nibble like some bird.”
  • “Sit up straight or your spine will grow that way.”

(In case you want to read it, I found the entire article here.) We all would probably get a good chuckle at the thought of speaking to our friends that way, but it’s just as disrespectful to say those things to children. Let’s stop and think about it the next time we talk to our children. Are we talking to our children as we should?

Think about it. We don’t say, “What do you say?” or “What’s the magic word?” to our friends but children hear it all the time. But what should we say in those situations? That’s where some thought must come into play.

Many Models in Child’s Life

You are not the only model in your child’s life. Children imitate parents, family members, friends, caregivers, teachers, and television characters. In two-parent households, the two adults will model different behaviors and ways of being in the world. Sometimes the discrepancies are large, but this is a normal level of inconsistency for family life. Children have to cope, and they usually do.

Art of Apologizing

Modeling is unforgiving in that it teaches your best and worst behaviors, the ones you’re most careful to practice and others you’re barely conscious of. Kids may be resilient but that doesn’t mean we can take them for granted. If we have modeled disrespect to them, we must then model apologizing. Thankfully kids are very forgiving, also.

Whenever I mess up as a parent, I apologize to my son. I have probably been doing this since he was too little to completely understand. Most of my apologizing is around the theme of me not being patient enough with him.

How do you apologize to a child? The same way you would apologize to anyone else. For me, it usually takes the form of me apologizing for my action, then guessing how that made him feel, saying how I should have acted, and then offering that I will work on being better (at whatever issue is at hand), and of course lots of hugs and kisses. (I also don’t offer excuses for my behavior.) For example:

“I’m so sorry I wasn’t very patient with you this morning before school. I bet that hurt your feelings. Did you feel sad? Mama should have let you take your time putting your shoes on. Mama will work on being more patient with you.”

What Can We Do?

Has anyone else noticed that when trying to figure out how to best parent your child, it often comes down to learning how to change your own thoughts and behavior? When certain stressful situations happen, we all have automatic responses that we learned as a child. In order to be the best parent we can be, we need to deprogram all our negative automatic responses, relearn new positive responses, and practice them until they become our new automatic responses. Here are a few thoughts on how to do this:

  • Train yourself to stop and think before you speak or react, remembering that everything you say will be recorded and imitated. We can then intentionally model the kind of behavior we expect and will accept from our children.
  • Follow Erma Bombeck’s advice and treat your kids the same way you would treat your friends. Ask yourself, “Would I say those words, in that tone of voice, to my good friend?” If not, it was probably disrespectful.

Closing Thoughts

What things have you been trying to “teach” your child lately? Have you been trying to “teach” gratitude by just talking about it? Have you been trying to “teach” cooperation by yelling when it doesn’t happen?

Take this time to think about the past few days with your children, what you want them to learn, and how a different approach might be useful.

I’ll leave you with this popular poem that hung on the wall in my sister’s room when we were children. It’s called Children Learn What They Live by Dorothy Law Nolte.

Children Learn What They Live

By Dorothy Law Nolte, Ph.D.

If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn.

If children live with hostility, they learn to fight.

If children live with fear, they learn to be apprehensive.

If children live with pity, they learn to feel sorry for themselves.

If children live with ridicule, they learn to feel shy.

If children live with jealousy, they learn to feel envy.

If children live with shame, they learn to feel guilty.

If children live with encouragement, they learn confidence.

If children live with tolerance, they learn patience.

If children live with praise, they learn appreciation.

If children live with acceptance, they learn to love.

If children live with approval, they learn to like themselves.

If children live with recognition, they learn it is good to have a goal.

If children live with sharing, they learn generosity.

If children live with honesty, they learn truthfulness.

If children live with fairness, they learn justice.

If children live with kindness and consideration, they learn respect.

If children live with security, they learn to have faith in themselves and in those about them.

If children live with friendliness, they learn the world is a nice place in which to live.

(If you like this article, share it with your friends by using the buttons below!)

Wendy – ParentingTips365.com

Healthy Living SeriesRead all the posts in the Healthy Living series by clicking on the icon on the left.

[This article contains affiliate links that may support Parentingtips365.]

[Photo credits: Vivek Chugh (parent/child), Andrew C. (girl), Nara Vieira da Silva Osga (boy)]

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This