Planting the seedsMake sure your child is watching
You may devour books the way other people devour brownies, but your kids can't mirror you if you read only when they're asleep. So be obvious about the habits and values you want to pass down. Even better, turn them into a family affair. Bike with your children or bounce alongside them to an exercise video.
Designate a family sketching hour on Sunday afternoons. Hug your spouse in plain view, then do a group embrace for good measure.
Gretchen Distler has her daughters, Alanah, 9, and Iris, 6, help her compost their yard in Blacksburg, Virginia. And Mitchell and Lisa Cronig of Shaker Heights, Ohio, teach their kids, Arielle, 10, and Jeremy, 8, a sense of charity by taking them along to donate clothes and toys, and including them in the Jewish custom of saving money for charities in a tzedakah box they keep in their living room.
Clean up your act...
What if you want your kids to eat healthfully and be polite, but you're hooked on M&Ms and swear like a truck driver? Often, the most reliable way to ditch a bad habit is to replace it with a good one.
Take Carol Laurino of Dedham, Massachusetts. Instead of snacking while she watches TV with Alec, 4, and Connor, 3, she has started lifting weights. (Alec is so inspired that she's had to make "weights" for him from paper towel rolls.) And instead of yelling at road hogs when she's driving, Laurino focuses on her breathing. She's even taught herself some G-rated expletives, which are catching on in her family. Alec -- who used to vent by repeating his parents' old four-letter favorites -- recently tripped in a restaurant and cried, "Fiddlesticks!"
"I am far from slender, and I don't like what I see in the mirror," Distler says. But she doesn't want her daughters ever to obsess about their own weight. So instead of saying, "This outfit makes me look so fat," she's learned to say, "I don't feel comfortable in this."
...And your partner's act
Not long ago, Davey belched at the dinner table. Trying to prompt a polite "excuse me," I asked him, "What does Daddy say when he burps?" Davey's immediate reply: "He says, 'BORK!'"
Uh-oh. If you need to suggest a role-model remodel, many parents I spoke to recommend bringing up a bad habit without the kids around and focusing on the effect it has on the children. Anne Aberbach of Paradise Valley, Arizona, mother of Jordan, 9, and Olivia, 6, says her husband, Steve Lee, is great at using this approach. "Sometimes, without realizing it, I'll say in front of the kids that I did something stupid, or I'll criticize my own appearance. Later, when we're alone, Steve says, 'Where do you think they get it when they talk about themselves negatively?'" says Aberbach. "And he's right. So I try to do better."
Following up with brief coded reminders in front of the kids ("Honey! Etiquette alert!") has helped at my house. My husband's burps are still loud enough to set off car alarms, but he does excuse himself afterward.
Be sneaky about your vices
If there's something that you can't bear to give up, indulge discreetly. Read that trashy magazine when the kids are at Grandma's; listen to Howard Stern on headphones instead of on the stereo. Master the art of secret snacking at home. (But beware: Kids notice a lot more than you think. Once, while Davey was playing in the next room, I wolfed down a giant malt ball, licked the evidence from my teeth, and drank some water for good measure. Minutes later, he said, "Mommy, can I have a mothball, too?")