“Children learn by observing and one of the things they spend observing the most is their parents,” says Christina Steinorth, California-based psychotherapist and author of Cue Cards for Life: Thoughtful Tips for Better Relationships. “With this in mind, it’s very clear why children look up to their parents as role models.”
Serving as the role model, secretly or openly, is a huge responsibility. What your kids see, hear and experience from you, they will likely mimic, says Dr. Fran Walfish, California-based psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent: Resolving Conflict and Building a Better Bond With Your Child.
“Self-awareness is the key to becoming a better role model,” says Walfish. “Understanding yourself gives you choices and when you choose to respond in a specific way, rather than respond automatically, situations more often than not resolve themselves favorably.”
In fact, according to Walfish, research supports the fact that a child who was parented negatively has a high likelihood of parenting her own child in the same manner. Role models can be either positive or negative.
In order to know yourself as a parent and serve as a positive role model, Walfish recommends the following:
- Understand how and in what ways you are similar to your parents
- Examine yourself so as not to automatically repeat mistakes your parents made
- Be aware of your feelings, moment to moment
- Slow down your reactions: Reflect before speaking or taking action
- Speed up your internal thinking process: First think “How do I feel?” and then think “How is my child feeling?”
- Self-evaluate so that you can make good, educated choices about how to raise happy, emotionally thriving children with good self-esteem
As you learn your own parenting style and how your children observe and interpret your behavior and actions, Walfish suggests that self-awareness will bring comfort and lead to calm parenting.
Teach by Example
As your child is observing your every move, take this opportunity to model the behavior you want to see develop.
Even as young as the toddler age, parents can use their position as a role model to their advantage. “This is the best age to start teaching frustration tolerance,” says Steinorth. “If your toddler has a temper tantrum, role model patience in your response to the temper tantrum.”
For example, Steinorth suggests using calm words to express how you relate to what the toddler is feeling. Show the connection between the two of you. “If you need to run errands with your toddler and your toddler starts having a tantrum because he or she would like to go to play at the park instead, rather than showing anger and frustration over the tantrum, in a calm voice role model patience by saying something like ‘I’d like to go play, too, but I need to do some work first. Once my work is done, then we can go play,’” says Steinorth. “A phrase like this also starts the very basic teaching of work comes before play.”
As your child ages and develops maturity, your job as a role model is even more important. This is an opportunity to teach your child about sincerity, generosity, values and morals, says Steinorth.
“If you would like your children to learn about giving back, role model the behavior by volunteering with them,” she says. Bake cookies together and spend an afternoon taking them to a nursing home to share the goodies with patients. Pick a holiday and help out at a homeless shelter preparing and serving meals.
“Volunteering helps children think outside of themselves, which helps teach them empathy,” says Steinorth. “When they see that you enjoy giving to others, they will follow in your footsteps.”
Unveiling the Secret
Even though your presence heavily influences your child, she may not always be willing to admit this fact. Don’t take it personally, says Walfish. This is just a sign that your child is establishing independence from you, even though she is always observing you.
The psychological goal of toddlerhood is for the young child to claim himself as a separate being from mommy and daddy, she says, whereas the psychological goal of adolescence is to resolve the separation established in toddlerhood.
“Most pre-teens and teens are less likely to admit that mom or dad is a role model because they are wrestling and grappling with separation and independence,” says Walfish. “Many kids think this includes rejecting their parents and their parents’ ideas.”
Even though your job as a role model may be kept a secret throughout your child’s toddler to teen years, the good news is that eventually, your child will realize the impact you have had on his life. “Most people realize their mom or dad had an impact on their lives by early adulthood,” says Walfish.