From the moment they are born, children learn by observing their surroundings. Those close to the child are constantly participating in the process of learning. Children will notice those around them and will use them as an example of how to model their behavior. Children will imitate or copy their parents, in the way they talk, gesture and conduct themselves. This critical process of learning, known as modeling, is continually happening and plays a significant role in the behavior of children.
Many parents lightheartedly refer to their children as little versions of themselves and from a modeling perspective this holds true. Parents delight in seeing their best qualities reflected in the behavior of their children. Parent, on the other hand may fail to recognize when a child’s behavior reflect those traits they are not as proud of. Parents are the continuous example of behavior for the child and as such, should at all times reflect in their behavior the example they want their child to follow.
Modeling good examples for children will not immediately mark a turning point in the child’s behavior. Observing, interpreting and then applying what they are exposed to is a process that takes time. This is why patience and consistency are essential tools for parents to use in helping to modify their child’s behavior. When a child grows up in an environment with consistency in their routines, in the rules that are used within the family and how they are talked to, it gives the child a sense of security. Children who grow in an environment with consistency are more relaxed. They will feel comfortable with the rhythm in which they eat, sleep and play in. Keeping this in mind, parents who are looking to adjust a certain behavior will do so best by modeling the behavior they seek to instill in their child in the context of a routine.
A simple way to see the value of consistency and modeling at work is when parents teach their children to greet others. Often when visiting friends or relatives, no matter what age, children are subject to an accelerated course in greeting etiquette the moment before the doorbell is rung. Then, when they forget to say or wave goodbye they will either be forced into the arms of another person or will have their arm violently waved for them, and yet they will not change the next time around. Suddenly placing all these expectations an instant before a new or irregular interaction will only feed insecurity and anxiety. On the other hand, a child who always sees their parents greet friends, strangers and co-workers and is, within their routine, shown and patiently explained the importance of greeting will recognize acknowledging and greeting people as a part of the routine of interaction.
Considering the role modeling plays in a child’s life, parents should expect other persons who will spend time with their children to exhibit the kind of behavior they wish to see reflected in their child. This is perhaps one of the most important things for parents to keep in mind when seeking a caregiver. They should not only be a trusted professional, but should exhibit habits and values that are in line with those of the family. There is no understating the importance of this. Studies suggest that the demeanor or mental condition, such as depression, of a caregiver can greatly affect a child.
It is important to consider that a child never stops looking to their parents for examples on how to model their own behavior. This may cause many parents to reflect on how an outside observer would perceive their own interaction with other people. This is where children pick up traits such as courage, integrity, conviction, but also, arrogance condescension, entitlement. Children perceive nuances in the behavior of their parents. Taking pride in hard work and setting goals are some traits parents may unknowingly instill in their children through their own attitude towards life, without having to resort to a major lecture. Similarly, the subtleties of some of grown up interactions can also resonate with a child. For example, if a parent treats a child's caregiver differently than they do a friend or relative, it is left to the child to try to make sense of why some people should be treated better than others. When parents choose to talk a housekeeper, who may not have the means to refuse a little extra work, into also caring for their child they are instilling in their child the benefits of taking advantage others. When children grow up looking at the brand of clothing of their peers before deciding to befriend them it should come as no surprise that for a major part of their upbringing they were cared for by someone more concerned with the superficial. Clearly these traits are not picked up from one day to another, but children will look for patterns and consistency even in their parents interactions to find behavior to model.
Parents are often concerned that to be a good model, they have to become a completely different person when the child is around. However, it is impossible to be two completely different people and even at an early age children can perceive this. Some studies have found that children begin to communicate by reading facial expressions and can notice the difference between a genuine smile and one that is hiding pain. For this reason it is important parents exhibit authenticity in their interactions.
In an effort to protect their children from discomfort or even sadness, parents will remove themselves completely from the vicinity of the child to have their adult conversation. Obviously, the more lively, animated or serious the situation the further removed they will be from the child. Clearly it is healthy to keep a child away from an adult interaction, but when parents then try to act as if nothing happened in front of the child they end up confusing the child. They may become even more frustrated at not be capable of hiding emotion as well as the example their parents set, or even worse they could develop that as their defense mechanism. In these situations it is best to patiently and in an age appropriate manner address when there is something out of the ordinary happening and the child will be alright.
Sometimes children are witness to either very intense or emotional situations such as an unexpected shouting match or a tragedy. Especially in these cases, it is important to address what is happening and reassure children things are under control and it will pass. This model for the child they can gain control even in a difficult situation. Often children will experience the more animated side of emotions, such as anger, disappointment or even extreme happiness. It is important to keep in mind children can be overwhelmed by good emotion as much as bad emotion and both may result in frustration and tears because they are not yet familiar with how one controls or understands those emotions. A child will pay close attention to how their parents act when they are frustrated, angry or overwhelmed with emotion. In short, a parent who slams a door in anger will inevitably have a tiny set of hands slam one on them. For this reason, it is important to address the existence of negative of really intense emotions when it is a good time and in an appropriate manner instead of trying to hide them.
Understanding the effect of modeled behavior on children, parents can take advantage when it comes time for any change. This is especially important to keep in mind when parents realize there is something they are accustomed to doing they want to either change or adjust to help their child. This often happens when families switch to a healthy diet or try to establish firmer boundaries and limits. In these circumstances it is important to first notify the child that there will be a change and what the change will be. Then, as parents model the routines and stick with them, the child will ease into the transition.
As a point of clarification, it is important to always keep in mind the age and level of development of a child. To address a situation to a child means explaining something to them in manner appropriate to their level. They may not even have the capacity to process and understand things such a death, promotions or travel, but by consistently presenting these things in a patient and consistent manner as they arise a child will become more comfortable with their own ability to deal with different kinds of change. Parents who acknowledge the degree to which their own behavior influences their child may be concerned that they should shoot for a Nobel Prize so as not to set a bad example for their child, should take comfort in the fact knowing learning from your mistakes is one of the most significant lessons they can be model. You are who you are. It is, of course, important to note there is no better time to make a positive change in life than when the consequences of your actions affect the formation of a new person.