Role Model Parents

A role model is a person whose serves as an example by influencing others. 


There is only one way to say this and it should be clear to every parent that you are your child's first and best role model. 


You are your child's first teacher and what he or she becomes has a lot to do with the examples that parents set for them.  The little creatures keep their eyes on every move the parent makes and they hear everything said and most importantly, how it is said.


Famous child psychiatrist Fritz Redl used to say to groups of parents: "Get out your paper and pencils. I am going to tell you the three most important things you will ever need to know about raising children."


The parents would wait breathlessly for his words of wisdom, then he would say, "Example, example, example."   


Similarly, Eda LeShan, a family counsellor and author about parenting, has often said: "The only way to raise a decent human being is by being one."


Here are some tips that are useful for all parents to remember.

"Monkey see, monkey do."     "Do as I say, not as I do."          These sayings describe two ways of teaching: by example and by preaching. Young children usually learn by the "monkey see, monkey do" method.  In case you doubt the importance of teaching by example, think about your own childhood. How were you most influenced to become the person you now are for better or for worse? Was it mostly what you learned in school? Was it mostly your school and adult friends?  Was it mostly movies or television? Chances are that the person you have become was influenced mostly by the example set by your parents and other people who were close to you when you were young.


Parents as Role Models    Young children do not have prior knowledge or skills, and so they eagerly look for someone to imitate. That "someone" is usually one or both of their parents.


Parents are a child's first teachers and role models. Usually children are more affected by what their parents do than by what their parents say. They learn how to behave by seeing how their mothers and fathers behave and following their example.


For this reason, you need to be aware of the "lessons" you may unintentionally be teaching your children. Children often learn without a parent's realizing it. For example, it's not unusual for a mother to overhear her four-year-old child scolding a younger sister or brother or a doll in the same sharp tones that she herself uses when scolding the children. Such unintentional influences are just as powerful as those we carefully plan.


Social skills    Social skills and attitudes are often best taught by example. A child will learn good manners more easily when "please" and "thank you" are part of daily life. The learning is gradual and occurs more naturally at home.


As children take part in social activities with a parent, they begin to notice how the parent reacts to other people and new situations. A child's own self-confidence in meeting people often depends on the parent's example.


Respect for others    Children learn more than social skills and table manners from their parents. They also learn how to value other people and institutions. Parents who regularly put down other people are teaching their child that other people are unimportant.  Be aware that the way you treat your child sets an example for how your child should treat others.   If you want your child to respect the rights and feelings of others, then you must begin by respecting your child's rights and feelings.Do it yourself   


Consistency between teaching and example is very important     If you try to teach your child one thing but then behave in a different or opposite way yourself, your child will become confused and frustrated as to what to do and whom to believe.


One man reportedly shouted at his children constantly: "Say 'please,' say 'thank you.'" Yet he was never heard to say "please" or "thank you" to his children.   More likely he would shout across the yard, "Go wash your hands for lunch" or "Get me the hammer" (with no "please" and no "thank you"). Or suppose a five-year old is caught hitting another five-year-old.  His parent tells him that he must not hit people and then gives him a spanking as punishment. The parent's action is inconsistent with the message and the child doesn't know whether to believe the words or the actions.


The home atmosphere     Children not only unconsciously imitate the behaviour of their parents, but they also absorb the general atmosphere of the home.   A child reared in a home filled with love, affection and cooperation can more easily show love to others.  This doesn't mean that you have to avoid conflicts but the way you handle conflicts is important.


Parents who cope with problems by blaming others should not be too surprised to hear their child say, "Sally did it, not me." If, on the other hand, a parent makes a real effort to tackle a problem, the child will be less likely to give up at the first sign of trouble.Accentuate the positive.  Perhaps instead of focusing attention on punishments and rewards, what threats will work, and whether to spank or not, we might better find some quiet time and place and try to define what qualities we would like our children to have when they grow up.  


Remember what one mother said,  "If I try to live by my values, my children will follow my lead."


Explain Things    Preach what you practice. That is, don't just do it, say it. Modeling is more effective when we talk about what we are doing and why.  If we take soup to a sick friend or if we work on a community project, our children are more likely to pay attention to what we are doing and to copy those efforts if we share our motivations.  


Children often have no idea why we do what we do. Explaining that we think it is important to be helpful and that's why we're bringing the soup or that we share the responsibility for making our community a better place to live and that's why we go to meetings, helps our children understand our reasoning and relate our activities to their own behavior.


Also talk about the ways you cope. Children need to see how people deal with the kind of situations and dilemmas that they face in life.  A father going out to clean the garage might say, "Oh, this place is such a mess, I don't know where to begin (mirroring the child's typical feelings about her own room, if this is an issue). "I guess I'll just start in one corner and see how far I get in an hour." The adult demonstrates a way of coping with feelings and shows how to take on a task step by step.


Parents Aren't Perfect     None of the above comments assume that any of us are capable of perfection or anything close to it. We all lose our tempers, say things we're sorry for, are not always as kind as we would like to be, maybe even cheat a little here or there. It is reassuring that it is the general trend in our behaviour that influences our children, not the isolated instances of bad (or good) behavior. We are human; so are our children. Perfection can be expected of neither. What is important is to admit our mistakes, say we're sorry, and demonstrate how we try to make amends for our failures.


Other Role Models

Children also model the behaviour and appearance of other persons that come into their lives.


These additional role models can be persons in the communities in which they live, teachers, coaches, care givers, celebrities, entertainers and characters from books or movies and their peers.


It is therefore very important that parents pay attention to the persons who teach and coach children, baby sitters, the music they listen to, movies they watch and books that they read.All of these along with the ‘friends’ children make on their journey have varying degrees of impact on a child’s life and it therefore calls for close attention to be paid by parents and guardians to make sure that the above influences are positive.


Parents should be voicing their concerns about negative lyrics in music played on air, negatives movies and they should check on coaches, ask for teachers to be vetted and pay attention to who and what is being taught in Sunday School.


Parents or guardians need to have conversations where they discuss role models with children.  Here are some tips for doing so:


  • Let children speak openly about the qualities their admire in role models

  • Ask your child what he thinks of the role model’s behaviour and dress

  • Ask them what opinion they want the public to have of them.

  • Give examples of people in your community and celebrities who you feel have positive qualities and are a good influence 

  • Work with your child to identify more appropriate role models.

  • Talk about people you look up to for guidance and inspiration

  • Help them to understand that public figures and celebrities can make poor choices and that they are not always right.

  • Help children to understand that persons who embrace inappropriate behaviour such as violence, crime, sexuality, race and gender stereotypes, and drug and alcohol abuse are not acting in their best interest and that this behaviour is frowned upon and you may want to have examples on hand to share with them.


Encourage your child to become involved in activities that reflect your values, such as religious programs, music, drama, sports, service clubs and volunteering.


Ronald L. PitzerExtension Family Sociologist

Sources: Eda LeShan. "The Best Kept Secret About Discipline."Parents, March 1988; Susan Isaacs."Are You Setting A Good Example?" Parents, September 1985