Do as I Do, Not as I Say

By Kathy Scherer, PhD. It is what parents do, not what they say, that matters most to children. First children learn by watching, then they might learn from listening. It is how the brain works, we learn automatically from observing, without having to think about it. Verbal lessons require more mental work to sort through and sink in, especially when the lesson is in contrast to parents’ behavior.

As parents work to set limits, guidelines and examples for children, they should first check to see what they are doing as role models. How are they managing their feelings, temper, and behavior. Parents need to be able to understand and manage their own behavior before they can teach children to do the same. We cannot expect to instill respect for boundaries and passion for learning when we do not honor these ourselves. For example, a parent who is telling a child to manage his or her anger must also model anger control, in order to be effective. To model is to teach.

I remember years ago, preparing my family to leave for a vacation. It was lunchtime. I was busy packing, preparing to go, too busy to sit down and eat. I had on my mental checklist, the family should eat lunch before we go. My husband and son were eating, but my 7 year old daughter was playing in her room. We called her, repeatedly, but no response. Finally, I stopped what I was doing and sat down with her. “I want you to eat now, so that we leave soon.” Her reply, ‘Mom, I’m too busy to sit down and eat lunch.’ Oh, my mirror. I was modeling ‘too busy’ rather than ‘eat.’ So, being a therapist, I changed my stance. “We are busy women, I think we should take a break, and go eat lunch before we go.” No problem, she immediately stopped what she was doing, and we sat down for lunch. This is just one example, of many, that I have witnessed in my many years as a parent.

Children are mirrors of their parents. Parents’ behaviors carry deeper learning for children than the parents’ words. Children pick-up their parents’ attitudes and feelings like a radar. They sense emotions, watch body language, listen to words, they learn automatically, with or without awareness. What they see and hear affects their values, social skills, and developing sense of self-worth. When parents take care of their own business, emotionally and socially, everyone in the family benefits, not just the parents.

Do as I do, and then do as I say.

The Heart and Work of Parenting blog is the written by two Psychologists, Drs. Kathy Scherer and Elizabeth Sylvester, who live and work in the heart of family life. They bring their expertise on emotional development, family attachments, neurobiology, and current scientific research to their work. The contents of this blog are sections of a book in progress; we welcome any thoughtful feedback. Website: Heart and Work.

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