One of my adult coaching clients was recently talking about his son’s growing negativity, how he couldn’t stand to be around him, and how his son always had to have the last word.

I noticed how my client was using his time with me: complaining about his son complaining…and he didn’t even realize it. This is how modeling works.

HOW he does life is HOW his son does life. He just didn’t see it because he has the mental story that he is worried about his son’s tendencies, and is blind to his own tendencies. He sees his son as negative, always complaining and unwilling to walk away from a conversation without getting in the last word.

Yet, the reality is that this dad is always complaining to his son about his behavior. He is constantly thinking negative and pessimistic thoughts about himself. Ultimately, the dad is also unwilling to let his son have the last word; it is really the dad who wants it.

How you do life is (likely) how your kids will do life.

The key purpose of this article is to heighten your awareness of the power of modeling.

What we model affects children on several levels, and has more power than we suspect. This is because children learn the “how” of living by how parents use their attention and energy. We teach it by what we talk about. We teach it by what we complain about. We teach by what we notice, and what we ignore.

There are other influences, of course, but modeling is the most powerful part of the teaching experience for children. So, while the words and contents of your conversations with your kids are important, the more powerful part of your role as a teacher and guide is through the way that you live. It’s through how you do your life.

Here are three specific questions to consider as you attend to what you model.

1. What are my daily habits?

We know the difference between what is healthy versus unhealthy. We know that smoking will harm us, a lack of exercise will compromise our lives, and processed sugars and simple carbohydrates are harmful over the long-term.

In situation after situation, how you discipline yourself to maintain healthy habits is much more important than any words or discussions that you have about those habits. In reality, this is about walking our talk and noticing whether we use words to try to teach, or do we lead with healthy habits that demonstrate our commitments?

Do I habitually get angry when I don’t want my children to react with anger? Do I speak negatively about the in-laws when I want my children to be respectful? Do I regularly talk about exercise, but my kids have never seen me lift anything other than the TV remote?

2. What do I regularly discuss?

Do you complain about your co-workers? Do you focus on what your children aren’t doing? Do you keep discussing problems? Do you keep noticing what is not working rather than what is working?

Is it a world where your kids are experiencing you as a complainer, focused on negativity or do they experience you as a parent-focused on what’s working and going well?

This is a critical distinction to make. It will shape how your children learn to focus their attention.

3. What behavior gets my repeated attention?

In the day-to-day life around your home, what hooks your attention? What do you notice most? Are you constantly reminding your kids to take care of their clothes? Is it endless nagging to keep them on top of their homework?

Or, is most of your energy focused on catching moments of cooperation? Are you vigilant in noticing the kids while they are doing their homework rather than while they are staring out the window? Do you comment on parts of the room that are neat and orderly rather than the parts that are not quite there yet?

Ultimately, at the end of the day, what has gotten the bulk of your attention?

In this way, you teach your kids “how” to live life. You’re teaching them whether to invest their energy in what they value and appreciate or whether to invest their energy in finding problems that they don’t like.

The first and most important, influence on our children will be how we live our lives, rather than how we tell our children to live their lives.