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.
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?"
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___?"
Have you ever dropped your kids off for school in the area designated for buses only? Or have you used your cell phone while driving, despite the fact that it's now illegal where you live? Or how about this one: Have you ever seen a list of beach rules--no drinking, no dogs, no kites--only to realize that you and your family were breaking several?
Such infractions may seem harmless at the time, but you're teaching your child that it's okay to break the rules and even the law, especially if no one is looking, says Christine Carter, Ph.D., a sociologist at UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center and author of Raising Happiness. Is that a message you want to send? It's not one I want to send. Yet, it wasn't until after I began writing this article that I realized how many rules I was breaking. For example, whenever we eat at a certain restaurant, I park in a space reserved for customers at a nearby bank.
In a word, "Oops."
Not only does following the rules help you raise a future law-abiding citizen, it can also help you enforce rules at home. "Kids are more likely to go along with a rule when they see it's something that affects everyone," says Patti Cancellier, education director for the Parent Encouragement Program in Kensington, Maryland.
For instance, for years I've told my daughter, "What isn't cleaned up within the next hour will go into toy time-out." Yet none of my stuff, or my husband's, ever ended up in time-out. On Cancellier's advice, I've now extended the rule to the entire family. Now my daughter actually enjoys cleanup time because, occasionally, my shoes or my husband's bike helmet end up in time-out too.
I don't know about you, but I've caught myself screaming the following: "Stop screaming this instant!" It's humbling when my daughter says, "But you're yelling too!"
Anger is contagious and few parents are immune. To model the calm, rational qualities you want to instill in your child in the midst of angry chaos, Cancellier suggests that you first try "square breathing," which shifts you from using the emotional part of your brain back into rational-thinking mode. Inhale for a count of two, hold for a count of two, exhale for a count of two, pause for a count of two, and then repeat as many times as needed.
It's also important to get enough rest. A lack of sleep is to anger as a lack of hand-washing is to the common cold. Stress and hunger can also breed grumpiness. Of course, sleeping more and simplifying your life is easier said than done. So when you do find yourself tired and stressed, use it as a teaching moment with your child. You might say, "Wow, I went to bed an hour after my usual bedtime last night and now look how grouchy I am."
When a situation is about to spiral out of control, you can sometimes quarantine yourself. Just say, "I'm feeling angry right now and I don't want to say something hurtful, so I'm putting myself in time-out until I can calm down." That's not an option when you're out in public and frustrated with your child's behavior. If he's small, just pick up his screaming, writhing body and walk away from the crowd.
Jason Anthony, of Pittsburgh, was one-upping his brother in a jovial game of wits. Eventually, they began yelling. "It wasn't until I saw my son watching us that I realized I was behaving in a way that completely contradicted what I'd been trying to teach him," says Anthony. The brothers apologized to each other and also to 7-year-old Riley. Anthony told his son, "It's okay to get upset. It's what you do about it afterward that counts."
Although it's tempting to hide our mistakes or to blame others for them, neither strategy teaches our kids how to recover from a blunder, says Parents advisor Michele Borba, Ed.D., author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions. That's why she suggests encouraging them to point out your mistakes in a respectful way. You might explain that you're working on your listening or anger-management skills and then say, "I'd like you to help me work on this." My own family makes a game out of it: I tell my daughter to charge me or her grandma a quarter whenever either one of us curses. "Kids love it when we can acknowledge that they're right and we're wrong," says Dr. Borba.
Being a super role model is easier than it seems. If you own your mistakes, you can turn any slip-up into a teaching moment. To prevent slipups, make a mental habit of asking yourself, "What am I about to teach my child?"
It was that question that gave me the courage I needed on the day of the bike accident to search for the owner of that parked car. I knocked on the door of the nearest house. A man answered, and I explained the situation.
"Is your daughter okay?" he asked.
"Yes, but your car isn't," I said. "I'm so sorry. Can I give you my phone number so we can arrange for me to pay for the repair?"
"As long as your daughter is all right, that's all that matters," he said.
As I got back on my bike, I felt happy--both because the man had let me off the hook and because I'd found the courage to do the right thing.
Originally published in the March 2014 issue of Parents magazine.