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Are You a Good Role Model?

"Fingers out, Davey!" I say. My 4-year-old is riding behind me in his car seat, sucking on two fingers, and my usual lecture is about to start. I'll warn him about the germs he's swallowing and the buck-teeth he'll develop. I'll probably even mention the awful night brace Uncle Barr had to wear as a kid because he sucked his thumb.

But first things first: We're at a stoplight, and I have a hangnail that's driving me nuts. As I begin to chew it off, I glance in the rearview to see Davey watching me. Of course he puts his fingers in his mouth! How could he not, when this is my idea of a manicure.

Child see, child do. As any parent knows, our kids instinctively copy us, from the way we walk and talk to the way we scarf down too many potato chips in one sitting. We may worry about those less-than-ideal habits  -- but let's pause for a reality check: Nobody's perfect. In fact, it's probably good for kids to see us tumble from our pedestals now and then.

"I want my daughters to learn it's okay to mess up," says Melissa Gillis of New York City, mom of Lily, 3, and Emma, 1. "They should know that I make mistakes, that I admit them and try to do better next time  -- and that this is being human." So if your child catches you being, um, human, don't kick yourself. Just resolve to set the best example you can. These parent-tested ideas may help.

Pick your priorities
It can be overwhelming to think about all the wonderful habits you want your child to have, and how best to model them. But you'll inspire plenty of fine behavior if you just choose a few principles close to your heart -- say, generosity, honesty, and kindness -- and let your actions follow naturally, says William Mitchell, a clinical child psychologist in Penfield, New York. The dad of two boys, 11 and 9, he says, "I can demonstrate generosity when I'm driving, for instance, and point out, 'That person really wants to get in my lane; I think I'll let him in.'"

Melissa Balmain, a mom of two, writes frequently for Parenting.

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