Remember that old anti-drug commercial where the dad finds his kid’s stash and wonders how he even knows how to use the drugs, followed by the immortal line, “You, all right. I learned it by watching you”?
Despite some inadvertent cheesiness, the message it conveys is still true: kids watch adults and try to emulate them. Kind of by default, this means that if you are in a child’s life, whether as a parent, relative, coach, teacher, or in some other way, you’re a role model.
This is especially true for younger children because they see grown-ups doing something and immediately assume that it’s the right way to behave and that they should try to do that. In fact, most of the way that kids learn things in their first several years of life is by watching and mimicking the adults and older kids around them.
Are you worried yet? After all, you’re no saint, and you don’t want to be responsible for the little ones in your life learning the wrong things. Should you stay away completely so that they don’t pick up your bad habits?
First off, it’s great that you feel that way, because wanting to model good behavior is the first step. Obviously, though, that’s not enough. Even people with the best of intentions can make mistakes, so you need to keep an eye out and protect against falling into that trap.
That’s why we decided to put together this list of five common mistakes that adults make when interacting with kids that can teach them the wrong thing.
Refusing to admit you are wrong. This is one of the big ones, and it can be really hard to get over – both around kids and adults. We’re hard-wired to react to others telling us we’re wrong or pointing out our mistakes by getting defensive and either denying any wrongdoing on our part or deflecting the blame back onto someone or something else. With other adults, this often comes out in fights as we do our best to maintain ground, but even around kids it can happen.
In that situation, it’s often more about the adult not wanting the child to know that they are fallible, or not wanting to have to take back a punishment that it was hard to get through already. Unfortunately, if we refuse to admit that we’re wrong when kids know that we’re wrong, we both lose their respect and teach them that they can get away with something when they’re in the wrong simply by continuing to fight against it and deny it. Instead, be honest if you make a mistake and own up to it, but don’t feel like you have to back down or give up just because you happened to be wrong about one particular thing; kids should see that admitting you are wrong can actually be a strength and not a weakness.
Talking the talk, but not walking the walk. How many adults advise their kids not to talk bad about people only to gossip about the neighbors? Or denounce cursing as the worst thing in the world – until that, ahem, jerk cuts you off in traffic and you let loose with a stream of obscenities that would shock a sailor? The answer, clearly, is far too many, and pretty much all of us are guilty in this.
It can be difficult to actually follow through in actions with everything about good behavior that you tell kids to model, but you should always strive to try your hardest. Kids need to see that you actually believe in the things that you’re telling them or they’ll just see them as a bunch of words that don’t really matter – and if they don’t matter to you, why should they matter to them? And when you do engage in some kind of behavior that you know strays off the path you’ve told them to follow, own up to it and tell them that you were wrong and you shouldn’t have done it.
Being inconsistent. One of the worst things that adults can do around children is engage in inconsistent behavior. You can’t tell kids that no soda is ever allowed because it rots your teeth, allow them to have it the next night because you’re having a dinner party, then return to the status quo without explanation. Yet those kinds of inconsistent parenting are things that many of us do on a regular basis.
Along with regularly changing up the rules, it’s important that you have a common set of rules rather than allowing some kids to get away with some things and others to get away with others. Doing this will make them believe that you’re not playing fair. The only time when something like this makes sense is when dealing with older and younger children, or with those kids who have special needs.
Reacting instead of thinking things through. Did you know that the way you interact with kids – especially for parents dealing with their own kids – is a response to the way your parents brought you up? If we want to make our own decisions and forge our own identities as role models or parents, it’s important that we take a step back and really analyze the way that we act and react around our kids. Only after doing that can you determine whether or not you’re actually conveying the message you want to convey to them.
If not, it might be time to reevaluate and come up with the responses you want. Then, the next time a particular situation comes up, your response will be more measured and hopefully lead to a better outcome.
Not taking care of yourself. As important as it is to be there for your children whenever they need you, it’s just as vital that you show them that you are a person, too, and that you have needs and wants just like they do. This doesn’t mean ignoring them, but it does mean that you should be willing to take time for yourself – and show your kids that you are doing this so that they will be more well-rounded adults who understand that everything doesn’t revolve around them. Just make sure that you take the time to talk to your kids about why you’re hiring a babysitter or missing out on tucking them in.
Jane Bongato is part of the team behind Open Colleges, Australia’s provider of child care and counselling courses. Jane is an early childhood educator with a background in Psychology and closely works with children who have special needs for about 6 years now. She enjoys reading, painting or meeting friends during her spare time.