Claudia Camassa of Long Island, NY, was pulling out of a parking lot when a car blocked her path. "Come on, move your @X%," she muttered. Her son Salvatore, who was 2 at the time, was in the back seat and the radio was on, so she didn't think anything of it. But a few minutes later, when they were at a stoplight and the light turned green, she heard her son pipe up, "Come on, move your @X%!" Says Camassa, "I was laughing, but at the same time, I was crying!" Since then, she has made an effort not to swear in front of her two children, Salvatore, now 5, and Dominick, 2 1/2. "When I stub my toe, I'll say instead, 'Sugar, honey, iced tea!'" she laughs.
Sure, time-outs can be effective. Yes, it's important to set limits. But most often it's how you act that truly sets the tone for your child's behavior. Setting a stellar example may be the farthest thing from your mind when you're juggling a squirming toddler, a bag of groceries, and a ringing cell phone. Yet, kids observe everything we do -- even if they seem to be absorbed by the TV -- and that's the key to shaping their behavior. "Children are like movie cameras," says Karen Sharf, a New York City family therapist. "They see everything and record it in their minds, whether on a conscious level or not."
These days, in fact, modeling may be more important than ever. Our children's lives are a whole lot more complicated. Today, kids interact with more and more people outside the family, from teachers to coaches to other children's parents -- all at increasingly younger ages.
The result? Kids face a potentially overwhelming amount of stimuli. While you can't control the behavior of everyone your child encounters, keep in mind that your own approach to even the most mundane activities, like going to the grocery store or picking up dry cleaning, can teach your child about patience and kindness. "The effective parent is always aware of what she's doing in front of her child," says Charles A. Smith, Ph.D., professor of child development and parenting at Kansas State University in Manhattan, KS.
That's not to say you should always feel on the spot. "You don't have to be perfect," says Dr. Smith. "If you feel the way you acted in a certain situation set a bad example, you can talk about it with your child afterward." So, for instance, if your little one observes you making up a white lie ("Oh, we can't make it. We have plans"), admit that you messed up and talk about what you could have done differently.
Here are five other things experts say you can do every day that will have a big impact on your child's behavior.
"How you treat your partner -- and your own parents -- gives your child important lessons in respect, cooperation, and being willing to negotiate or change your mind," says Sharon L. Ramey, Ph.D., professor of child and family studies at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. Remember to say "please" and "thank you" with loved ones as often as you do with coworkers.
An all-too-familiar scenario: "One or both parents come home absolutely exhausted," says Sharf. "If they don't take it out on each other, they tend to isolate themselves." Instead, establish a ritual if you need to decompress at the end of the day, she suggests. Let everyone know that you need to be alone for 20 minutes, after which your family can trust that you'll be available. In addition, when you and your spouse have a disagreement, talk it through rationally in front of your child (even if you need a few hours to cool off first). That way, your child can learn how adults compromise, negotiate, and consider other people's needs.
"Whether we're at a retail shop or watching TV, all around us we see examples of bad manners," says Kay West, the Nashville-based author of How to Raise a Lady and How to Raise a Gentleman. "It's your responsibility to teach your children that politeness is easy and fast and should be part of every transaction between human beings." A friendly attitude and basic good manners teach kids about taking turns, being considerate, and listening. What's more, when your child sees how warmly people respond, he'll soon come to realize that he can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. The valuable lesson learned: When you behave nicely, you get what you want and feel better too.
This is a tough one, as anyone who has been stuck in traffic or experienced airport delays can attest. But being adaptable is one of the most crucial behavior lessons kids can learn -- not to mention that seeing a parent blow his top can be upsetting, says Dr. Ramey. When that happens, a child may feel afraid and wonder, "Will my dad do this to me when he's angry?" If you do slip for a moment and lose your temper, Dr. Ramey says, you can immediately apologize to your child and say, "I didn't mean to act that way. I wish I had done things differently." You can also stress that your child isn't to blame for your anger. As a result, your child will learn that it's good to apologize, and she'll take note that you're working to gain control of your emotions.
A compliment can be music to anyone's ears, especially a child's. ("You were so patient when we had to wait for a table.") And don't stop there. You can point out when the protagonist in a book or on TV is being helpful and ask your child how rude characters should have behaved. You can also give him opportunities to practice good behavior outside the immediate family, Dr. Ramey says. For example, encourage him to hold the door open for an elderly person, or rehearse with him how he should greet guests at a party.
Many kids "lose it" in public after repeated attempts to get a response from an oblivious parent. That doesn't mean you should always stop what you're doing to tend to your child. "A child learns to be patient by being asked to wait until you're ready to give her your attention," says Dr. Smith. ("I do want to see your project. I'll be able to really look at it after I've finished my conversation.") But children have a much easier time waiting if you acknowledge them right away and consistently keep your promises. It also shows respect -- an important concept you want her to learn and use in her interactions with others.
Ultimately, remember that you are the one with the ability to make the greatest impact on your child's behavior, even if sometimes it doesn't feel that way. And that's great news. As Dr. Smith says, "You're going to be numero uno in your child's eyes no matter how many other people come into his life."
All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.