It was a beautiful day and I was riding my bike with my 7-year-old. We were both having fun. No one was whining.
The next moment, Kaarina's bike smashed into the back bumper of a parked car and she fell onto the pavement with a thud. I flung my bike down and ran to her. Miraculously, she had barely scraped her knee.
The parked car, however, was another story. The front tire of the bike had pulled off a large swath of paint. Wasn't this just my luck? In the past few months, our water heater had conked out. So had the dishwasher. The ice maker in the fridge no longer worked either. I'd been driving around in a car with lots of scratches and dents of its own. Now I was going to pay to have someone else's back bumper painted? Really? I sighed. This was just great.
I glanced up and down the block. "We could just ... leave," I thought. I looked at the car again. Really, it wasn't a huge scratch. The longer I looked at it, the smaller it seemed.
"Let's just go," my daughter begged.
That's when I realized that we absolutely could not leave. We'd have to find the owner of this car and fess up.
Thankfully, I did the right thing that day, but I'm embarrassed to admit that there have been other times when I didn't. I teach my daughter to be honest, yet I hear myself lying. I discipline her when she lashes out in anger, but I sometimes lose my own temper in the process.
This concerns me, and for good reason. "Your children are watching every single thing you do, and they're absorbing it," says Susan Newman, Ph.D., a social psychologist in the New York City area. Want a kid who eats her vegetables? Eat your own. Expect her to be polite? Always say please and thank you. Modeling is the fastest and easiest way for a parent to teach good behavior--or bad. These are five critical areas where many of us fail to walk our own talk, and advice for how to set a better example.
Tell the Truth
Nearly three-quarters of parents say they teach their children that "lying is unacceptable," but almost all admit to lying to their own children at one time or another, according to one study by researchers at the University of Toronto and University of California, San Diego. Parents lie for various reasons, ranging from a desire for compliance ("If you don't wear your seat belt, I'll press a special button that ejects you from the car!") to a desire to please ("That's the best drawing I've ever seen!"). Although some lies might make our lives easier in the moment, they often backfire in the long run.
Lies also rob us of important teaching opportunities. For instance, instead of saying, "I don't have any money" when there is, in fact, money in your wallet, you could offer a lesson on money management by saying, "There are many things I don't buy for myself. If I buy whatever you want, we won't be able to go on fun vacations." Similarly, by praising kids when they don't deserve it, we lose the chance to help them deal with being average.
One common lie that experts say is the exception to the rule is the one we tell about Santa and the Tooth Fairy. This type of folklore can enrich a child's imagination, as long as you're honest when she truly starts to doubt and asks, "Is there really a Santa Claus?"
Put on Your Listening Ears
How often have you complained, "My kids don't listen?" I know I have. Yet many of us don't really listen to our kids. Pay attention to how often you say things like, "Not now" or "Let's talk about that later." Also notice when your kids are talking but your mind is somewhere else. They can tell. "Listen when your child is telling you something," says Dr. Newman. "That way, when you talk he'll listen to you."
It makes sense, but it's not necessarily easy to put into practice. Our deafness often stems from fatigue, trying to do too much, and distraction, says Dr. Newman. I've noticed that I tune my daughter out when I'm driving and when I'm on the computer. In the car, I've now started to drive without listening to the radio so I can focus on what she's saying. At home, I try to stay off Facebook during family time because I'm painfully aware that my mind can't be in both places.
It's especially important to make listening a priority when your child is upset. Kids often talk slowly, so you may be tempted to guess what they're trying to say and to jump in with advice. Instead, give your child a chance to finish and then ask questions such as, "What do you think about___?" or "What is another way you think you could have___?"