When Good Parents Set Bad Examples

Your words say one thing, but your actions say something else. Here's the best way to teach your child values--and keep your message straight. Plus take our revealing quiz to see if you could be setting a better example.

Introduction

Every parent I know believes it's important to be a good role model for their children. Most of the time, moms and dads succeed at this--but not always. Sometimes we unwittingly demonstrate the very behavior we want our kids to avoid.

I'm not talking about the obvious bad examples that many of us are guilty of setting from time to time--like when you scream at your 5-year-old to stop yelling at his little sister. Those mistakes are made in a moment of frustration, and good parents realize right away what they've done wrong. I'm talking about the more subtle ways we unknowingly sabotage the lessons we hope to teach. Here are five common scenarios.

Next: Scenario 1

Scenario 1

You ask the right question--but you don't focus on the answer.

When you get home from work, you say to your child, "Tell me about your day." This is a perfectly reasonable request. Of course you want to hear what happened during recess or at the playdate--you enjoy your child's stories and feel better connected to her when she lets you in on what's going on in her life.

The bad example. You send the wrong message if you make this request while you're busy getting dinner on the table, sorting the mail, or picking up toys in the living room. From your child's point of view, this is what you're saying: "Talk to me, but make it fast because we don't have a lot of time. What I'm really interested in is getting this dinner prepared . . . or this mail opened . . . or this house cleaned up."

You also send a mixed message when you ask your child to tell you about her day but say nothing about yours. That may be why you're getting one of those infamous responses that drive parents crazy: "Nothing," "fine," "not much."

The better way. Kids love to have a parent's undivided attention, at least for a little while. Carve out some time when you can put aside chores, sit down with your child, look at her, ask about her day, and listen as if nothing else in the world matters more. Doing so will let her know that you're truly available. In addition, always try to tell her something about your day. When you volunteer a bit of information about yourself, two things happen: First, you show your child that when the family is together, it's a nice time for everyone to share their news. Second, your own story may jog your child's memory, and you might suddenly hear about how two kids got into an argument during lunch or how the teacher was in a grouchy mood and yelled. Like magic, when you open up, your child does too.

Next: Scenario 2

Scenario 2

You turn off the TV--but you don't fully tune in to family time.

Parents are right to be concerned about the amount of time their kids spend plopped in front of the tube: Not only are they too young for the overload of pop culture, but less TV means more family time, which is a good thing. A lot of well-meaning moms and dads consciously set limits on how much television they allow their kids to watch but don't realize that this step alone isn't enough.

The bad example. The TV may be off, but it's very clear to your child that you're still "plugged in" in a dozen other ways: Your cell phone rings as you're walking in the door; you check the voice mail before you've even taken off your coat; you're on the computer at night browsing the Internet and answering e-mail. Too much TV we know about--but we overlook the rest of this communication barrage and the message our kids are getting from us: that in order to function in this world, you've got to be plugged in and on call 24-7.

The better way. Once a day, have your family spend an hour or so together in an electronics-free zone. It might be when you get home from work, around dinnertime, or just before bedtime. Leave the computer off. Don't jump up for the phone. Turn down the volume on the answering machine so you won't be tempted to screen calls. Most of us don't have a constant emergency situation to deal with; we don't need to be instantly reachable. If you carve out a period when nothing is allowed to violate the boundary of the family, you'll model a good message--that Mom and Dad can be unplugged for a while and that family life can be pleasant without the nonstop input of the outside world.

Next: Scenario 3

Scenario 3

You encourage gratitude--but you don't expect any yourself.

By the time your child reaches kindergarten, it's likely you've said something like the following to her a thousand times: "Did you thank Jessica's mom for inviting you to the party?" "I liked the way you put your arm around Mary when she was crying this afternoon." "Thank you for this picture you drew for me. I think it's so pretty." You have also tried to model appreciative behavior yourself by letting your child hear you say "thanks" to the bus driver at the end of the ride, and so on.

The bad example. You take your son to the mall to shop for new sneakers. While there, you buy him lunch at his favorite fast-food restaurant and give him a handful of quarters to play video games. You know he's had a great time, but he doesn't say a word to acknowledge everything you've done for him today.

The better way. Most parents urge their children to say "thank you" to other people, but it's just as critical that you encourage them to express gratitude to you. You deserve it, after all. Yet many parents view the good deeds they do for their kids as simply part of the job. That attitude sabotages our message to kids that it's important to give-as well as accept-thanks.

Of course, you don't need a show of gratitude every time you put away his laundry or prepare his lunch. But every so often-when you've taken him and his friends to the movies or when you've prepared his favorite meal--say, "I'd really like to hear a "thank you.' " You might ask your spouse to help out: "Wasn't Mommy great to make such a fabulous dinner? Let's make sure we tell her how much we appreciate it." Here's the critical thing: When your child sees that his thank-you makes you smile, he learns from real-life experience that showing appreciation makes a difference. It feels good to him, and it makes somebody else feel good too.

Next: Scenario 4

Scenario 4

You tell kids to admit mistakes--but you rationalize your own.

We urge our children not to make excuses, to own up to their errors. We want them to understand that everybody gets things wrong sometimes and that it's important to say so and then try to improve the situation.

The bad example. Your son and his buddy have spent their entire playdate squabbling over toys. When the friend goes home, you say, "That's it-no more playdates for a week." A few days later, you realize you were wrong to issue such an extreme punishment, but you don't want to go back on your word. After all, you've heard that it's critical to be consistent and that if you don't stick to your guns, your kids will be confused or perceive you as weak.

The better way. If you change your mind and it's reasonable to do so, let your child know: "I was really angry the other day, and I wasn't thinking things through clearly. I was wrong to say no playdates for a week-that's too much. I'm going to figure out a better idea." You will demonstrate that it's appropriate for all of us to think about what we do, admit when we're wrong or off base, and then try to make reparations. And your child will not think less of you for it.

Next: Scenario 5

Scenario 5

You urge them to calm down--but you don't show them how.

Parents are well-meaning when they say to a child, "No tantrums . . . no hitting . . . no screaming . . . think before you act." We want our kids to understand that if they're angry, they need to calm down and learn to express their feelings in an acceptable way. Many parents also try to teach their children to solve problems by asking, "What can you do differently next time?"

The bad example. Your husband forgets to bring home milk after you've reminded him four times . . . the waiter at the restaurant is rude . . . the car in the next lane cuts you off. You're feeling really annoyed, but you don't want to blow up in front of your child. So you sweep your feelings under the rug, grit your teeth, and say nothing. Though such an action is clearly preferable to insulting your spouse, chewing out the waiter, or gunning the motor and trying to race the other car, you've forfeited a perfect opportunity to show your child how to handle anger.

The better way. Children learn a lot about resolving conflicts by witnessing the way their parents struggle with difficult emotions. So in some situations, it's wise to let your child hear you talking to yourself. In the restaurant, say, "Okay, that waiter is not doing what he should be doing, but he looks totally frazzled, and I'm just going to let this go now." During an attack of road rage, say, "I really want to speed up here and cut that guy off, but I'm not going to be silly. I'm going to take a deep breath and calm down."

You present a powerful model when you let your child see you trying to handle your own harsh emotions. Plus, he sees in a concrete way that the things you tell him to do are consistent with how you behave.

Copyright © 2004. Reprinted with permission from the June 2002 issue of Parents magazine.

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