Good Things Kids Learn from Your Bad Habits

Okay, sometimes you lose your temper, tell a white lie, or let "Oh, s--t" slip in front of your child. Are you teaching her horrible values? The answer may surprise you.
Stephen Israel

Getting Caught in a Lie

From the moment our kids are born, they look to us as role models. They watch how we navigate through our days, care for and respect others, and handle life's occasional bumps. And then they copy everything we do. "It's one of the most powerful ways that children learn," says Sal Severe, PhD, Parents advisor and author of How to Behave So Your Children Will, Too!

But let's face it: No one is perfect. You curse, you tell the occasional lie, and you lose it when the dishwasher starts foaming and water streams onto the kitchen floor -- and then you panic when your kids catch you committing these sins. But instead of walking on eggshells for 18 years, you can use your not-so-shining moments to teach kids valuable lessons. Not only can you show them how to right a wrong, you can also help them see what it means to be human. But how do you know when your slipups are harmless and when you're encouraging bad behavior? Read on to learn when you've crossed the line.

Getting Caught in a Lie

When you shouldn't sweat it: If your sister asks, "Do these pants make me look fat?" at a family gathering, there's obviously only one answer: "Of course not!" Don't worry -- white lies are generally harmless. Plus, they teach your child a valuable lesson -- that you don't want to hurt people's feelings, says Dr. Severe. When you explain to your child later that you were trying to be kind to Aunt Margaret, he'll learn to think of other people's feelings too (even if it means bending the truth on occasion).

When it's trouble: Lies that break your child's trust are always taboo, like telling her that her parakeet didn't die (it just flew away!), or sneaking out for a date with your husband by assuring your screaming toddler that you'll be back in a minute. Yes, the truth will hurt, but it's better to bend down to your child's level and confess gently, says Bonnie Maslin, PhD, author of Picking Your Battles: Winning Strategies for Raising Well-Behaved Kids. If you don't, your child will feel much more upset and betrayed later, when she learns you're not coming back in a flash or that her parakeet is buried in the backyard.

Chronic lying can be even worse. "If you often avoid difficult situations, such as getting out of an obligation by saying that your child is sick when she's fine, you're sending the message that it's better not to tell the truth," Dr. Maslin says. It's guaranteed to come back to haunt you -- as your child gets older, she'll learn to lie to you about where she was after class or how she's doing in school.

Stephen Israel

Losing Your Temper

When you shouldn't sweat it: You're in the clear if it's an occasional, and sometimes deserved, outburst. Lorin Peterson, of Minneapolis, admits that she blows it once in a while when she's trying to get her kids, ages 5 and 6, out the door for school. "We're usually running late, and I just flip out because they haven't brushed their hair or their teeth," she says. "I think the kids will miss the bus. It's a pressure cooker."

Peterson shouldn't worry. "Everybody loses it sometimes," Dr. Maslin says. The way to make it right with your child -- and to turn your mistake into a lesson -- is to take responsibility for your actions, explain why you got upset, and promise that you'll work to change your less-than-stellar behavior. "Don't say that you'll 'try' to change," Dr. Maslin says. "You have to do it."

When it's trouble: Telling your kids that you're tired and need help in the kitchen is fine; screaming and calling them "lazy" isn't. "They won't learn to control their anger, and they'll expect everyone else to take the blame when they lose their temper," says Ed Christophersen, PhD, coauthor of Parenting That Works: Building Skills That Last a Lifetime. Your best bet is to note the times you do lose your temper. Then, take steps to make those tense occasions manageable -- ask your kids to give you a moment to yourself when you get home from work, for example -- so that you won't blow up the next time.

Stephen Israel

Bad-Mouthing Someone

When you shouldn't sweat it: Everyone's allowed to express a feeling -- just consider how you do it. You could get on the phone and say that your neighbor is a slacker because she always drops her kids off at your house and never watches yours. Or you could say, "I'm upset that she never takes my kids." "It's okay for children to see that you don't approve of everybody's behavior," Dr. Maslin says. "But they need to see you express anger and unhappiness in a way that's healthy, not destructive." Even young kids can make the distinction by watching your body language and tone of voice.

When it's trouble: Constantly ranting and labeling people will encourage your kids to do the same. Eric Noyes, of Bozeman, Montana, got a taste of this when a man in his neighborhood objected to the way that Noyes drove through the streets to get his kids to school on time. After the man complained, Noyes started saying, "There's that grumpy guy who thinks I drive too fast," whenever they drove by the guy's house. And now the kids say, "There's the grumpy guy!" whenever they see his house. "I feel really bad about that," Noyes says. "He's probably a nice person." The fix: "Tell the kids, 'You know what? I made a mistake. It's not nice to say nasty things like that,'" says Dr. Severe.

Stephen Israel

Fighting with Your Spouse

When you shouldn't sweat it: Small spats -- who took the garbage out last (you know you did) or who's going to drive the gaggle of screaming 6-year-olds to soccer practice (his turn) -- aren't going to send your kids into therapy. They're actually great opportunities to teach children how relationships work. You can say, "Mommy and Daddy can get angry at each other sometimes, but we still love each other." Plus, it shows kids that a loving relationship requires compromise, and it's healthy for them to see you make up.

When it's trouble: When you belittle your spouse, scream and slam doors, or hurl nasty accusations at each other, you're teaching your children that this is how people treat each other. This behavior also scares them. "Kids wonder, 'Whose side am I on?'" says Dr. Severe. What's more, it can cause children to act like the adults in the family; if Mom and Dad can't pull it together, the kids will feel like they have to. So if you sense that a serious argument is developing, move it behind closed doors. And if the fights are frequent, consider counseling.

Breaking a Promise

When you shouldn't sweat it: If your intentions were good, you're safe. Maybe you said you'd go to your daughter's ballet recital, but the highway was like a parking lot and you were half an hour late. The upside is that when you occasionally break a promise like this, it gives kids the chance to see that it's a big world out there. Sometimes there are obstacles you just can't get around.

When it's trouble: Never make a promise you don't intend to keep, such as promising your son that you'll take him to the zoo if he behaves. "It's a trust issue," says Dr. Severe. "And you've got to rebuild that trust." Apologize to your child, reschedule, and admit that, yes, you broke a promise, but you'll stay true to your word next time. "The bottom line is that if you've made a promise, you've got to follow through," Dr. Severe says. That way, as your child gets older, he will too.

Swearing

When you shouldn't sweat it: Don't worry if it's rare and understandable -- you're on the highway and you spot a cop's flashing lights in the rearview mirror. To stop copycat cursing, point out that you shouldn't have said a bad word and try to keep your lips zipped from then on. "If your kids see that you use pretty good language over an extended period of time, they will too," Dr. Christophersen says.

When it's trouble: When you curse all the time or when the expletives are directed at your child, your kids learn to swear like sailors and they can also get hurt. If, for, example, your young Picasso has smeared finger-paint on the bedroom wall, you might say, "Oh, damn!" But you've definitely crossed the line when you say, "Damn you, you ruined the wall!" To undo the damage of constant cursing, you have to make a visible effort to kick the habit. Dr. Christophersen suggests setting up a swear jar for both parent and child: "Kids love to hear Mom or Dad use a curse word and then have to put a quarter in the jar just as they would have to -- and they learn from it."

Copyright ? 2006. Reprinted with permission from the July 2006 issue of Parents magazine.

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