As the saying goes “practice what you preach.” And this adage is never more important than in raising children. When it comes to shaping your child’s behavior, you can explain, you can punish, and you can reward, but the truth is that there is nothing more important than being a good “role model.”
Although the theory is still to be proven, many neurologists who study child development believe that there is a mirror neuron system in the brain that allows children to learn from what they see other people do, to the extent that they are doing the behavior themselves. Since learning is based on repetition and relevance, parents naturally have the upper hand in shaping their child’s behavior by simply showing kids what they should be doing.
Of course saying this and doing this are two different things. You just might have a bad habit or two (or three or four or more) that you wish your children would not emulate, but controlling this habit and changing your own behavior is an elusive task. Let’s face it, it’s hard to change, and few of us are as good as we want our children to be.
But there is a simple solution, a technique that I call The Positive Story of Your Day. Studies tell us that just having dinner with your child or teen is an important predictor of how often kids and teens break family rules. But you can have an even greater influence on your child’s developing psyche’ by telling positive stories about your day (as opposed to grousing and complaining), modeling your problem-solving skills and optimistic attitude.
Now I’ll teach you this technique by example. Several years ago I was traveling on one of the country’s busiest and most frustrating stretches of road, the Cross Bronx Expressway. I was already running late for an important meeting when I got a flat tire. I pulled over to the side of the road, with cars whizzing by, and upon opening the trunk I found that there was no jack. I called a service company, which took an hour to come, and I finally arrived at my meeting, late, filthy, and very frustrated.
I felt like venting at dinnertime but decided to take a different course with my six-year-old sitting next to me. Instead of complaining, I emphasized the positive aspects of the situation that I wanted to model for my daughter. After all, I acted in a safe way, I kept my cool, I solved the problem of getting the tire fixed, and even though I was embarrassed at being late, I had called ahead and found that the people I went to see for the meeting were very sympathetic. And you know what? I felt much better in telling the story of my day in a positive way than if I had just vented. Positive thinking really does help, and modeling this helps you and your child.
Parenting Skill: Be a good role model for your child. Even if your behavior is not always what you might wish, model a positive attitude when talking about yourself and your experiences.