Children learn behaviour in a number of ways, two of which are what they are told to do and what they see others do. Out of these, observational learning, or mimicking how others act in certain situations, appears to be by far the most influential. Mimicking solidifies both behaviour, as well as less tangible traits, such as thinking styles, motivations, and moral values. This is not only on a psychological basis, but biologically too. Neurological research has identified mirror cells in the brain, which strongly react when a behaviour is copied, forging neurological connections and further solidifying behaviours.
Essentially, this means that no matter how much you tell your children what is right and what is wrong, how they should behave and why certain traits are important, this will not be internalized nearly as much as your behaviour. In other words, every day, whether you are conscious of it or not, you are teaching your children both positive and negative behaviours, attributes and skills based only on how you act around them. This concept, called modelling, is one of the most important tools you have at your disposal to ensure your child leads the kind of life and develops into the kind of person you wish them to. By displaying positive behaviours, morals and coping skills, you will be integrating these into your child’s personality, values and outlook on life in a much more deep set and powerful manner than verbal instructions could ever achieve.
Try to incorporate some of the following strategies in your daily interactions with your children.
Act out and model what you want your children to do
This should be everything from more apparent things like saying please and thank you, to less obvious things like expressing gratitude, helpfulness and being polite. Importantly, these behaviours should be modelled to not only your children, but also to your partner, friends,family and strangers. This will teach children that these rules apply to everybody. The behaviour should also be performed both inside and outside the house, so that children do not believe they apply only in certain settings.
Stay conscious of your example
It is impossible not to model behaviour. To ensure you are not unconsciously modelling negative behaviour, try to actively think about each action you take. Consider how you handle stress, frustrations with others, problems in your environment, failure, competition and responsibilities. Write down a list of values you want to see in your children, go over these regularly and decide whether they correspond to your behaviour.
Another useful tip, especially for young children, is to role play. Ask your child to act as you would in a certain scenario, with you taking on the role of the other person, be it your child a waitress or a family member. This can be a very powerful way to gain insight into what habits your child is picking up from you.
Inconsistency in what you expect from your children and in what they observe in your behaviour can reduce the effectiveness of what you are trying to teach them, cause confusion about what is actually expected of them and result in discipline problems.Children will not respect rules and may begin to pick and choose behaviours, or look to other sources for an example.
Of course, not everything that is appropriate for adults is appropriate for children. For example, wearing makeup or drinking alcohol. This can create an inconsistency in their minds even though what you are doing is not actually wrong. In these cases it is best to acknowledge the inconsistency, and explain to children that although it is not appropriate now, it may be when they are older.
Use your own mistakes to teach children how to act when they make their own
We are all human, so knowing how to act when you do something inappropriate is important. The first step is noticing that something you have done has set a bad example. Instead of seeing this as a bad thing, view it as an opportunity to teach your children that no one is perfect, and how to act when they make a mistake. Start by acknowledging that your behaviour was not the correct way to act, and discussing why this is the case. Apologize to the affected person, or discipline yourself in a manner similar to which you would your children. Discuss or model ways that the situation could have been handled better, and make sure to do that if the situation arises again. Try and model the appropriate response to the behaviour – if you showed disrespect, model apologizing, if you made a mess and didn’t clean it up, offer to tidy up and do one or two additional chores.
Teach your children about positive role models
Both fortunately, and unfortunately, parents are not children’s only role models. You cannot teach your child everything and cannot avoid other role models surfacing in their lives. Rather than feeling anxious or trying to isolate them from the world, both of which will be unhealthy for your child, teach them about the qualities a good role model should have. Have faith that your own example will reflect in the things that matter.
If you are concerned about one of your child’s role models, be it someone in their immediate environment, a sportsman or celebrity, banning this person from their lives is seldom effective. It is more productive to instead explain that everyone has good and bad qualities, and that they do not have to do everything that person does to achieve the same successes. Only if influences are highly negative (such as drug use, etc.) should you more actively discourage their association. These observations are also true for your children’s friends. Bear in mind that friends are more likely to influence every day behaviour, like fashion choices, rather than their deep set morals.
Together with a strong relationship and consistent, positive modelling, your example will be the one that your children adopt when it really matters.