Mom…Dad: “We Can’t Escape What We Model”

Whether we like our choices and actions as a parent or dislike them, it doesn’t matter. Our choices and the behavior we model will dominate the lessons taught to our children.

As the third core principle of Terrific Parenting, I frequently bring this up and most parents understand the obvious implications. They respond with age-old truisms like:

  • “Monkey see… Monkey do.”
  • “Actions speak louder than words.”
  • “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
  • “A chip off the old block.”
  • “Like father…like son.”

All of these old ‘truisms’ speak to the central issue of parents as models, and how our children learn to mimic our behavior…even when we don’t want them to. This age-old wisdom is supported by current research, showing that children do (mostly) follow in the footsteps of what mom and dad model.

First, The Downside…

Most of us realize that if we smoke, our children are much more likely to smoke. If we curse, they will likely curse. If we love the Giants (Yeah…go Giants), then usually they grow to love the Giants.

We know that if Mom was abused as a child, she is more likely to be violent with her children…and that her grandchildren will also be more likely to be abused. If Dad lies to his boss, it seems that his son soon lies to Dad.

These cycles continue in ways that go well beyond what one could predict from heredity. Low self-esteem, teenage pregnancy, dropping out of school, delinquency…all seem to get passed down from parent to child through the obvious and subtle messages we model.

The bad news is that certain children seem to gravitate toward our worst habits…and absorb them without hesitation. Of course, the good news is that they also learn to mimic our healthy behavior.

So…There Is An Upside…

It’s easy to get trapped noticing the negative ways this principle operates. Yet, the opposite is equally true.

For example, 90% of the volunteer workforce in America had parents who volunteered. Most parents who graduate from college, raise children who graduate from college. Parents who find happiness in life tend to raise happier children. Most athletic parents raise children who remain athletic in their lives.

There are countless ways that we see the cycle of positive and negative modeling affecting our children. It is a fact then, that we can’t escape what we model.

Where’s the Rub?

The issue is often this: We frequently overlook our shortcomings, justifying our negative reactions and poor choices. We excuse ourselves for screaming at the kids, or complaining about coworkers constantly, or watching a violent movie with our toddler sitting there. We tend to find a way to rationalize the behavior. We don’t see that these are teaching moments…and that our children are taking exquisite notes, capturing all the details.

Bottom line: there is no parenting book, no therapist, or behavior plan that saves us from what we model. We can learn from an honest look in the mirror and a few changes in our reactions. And while these changes rarely solve everything, changing how you react is often the first key to a calmer, more respectful home.

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