"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.'"
Planting the seeds
Make 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?")
Take heart and be realistic
Find a surrogate role model
Distler, who's nervous about swimming in the river near her family's home (she's squeamish about the catfish lurking on the bottom, but hasn't let on about her feelings to her daughters), counts on her mom and husband to model what she can't: fearless frolicking in the current. "The girls have always been willing to go in the river because there's somebody they trust who'll do it, too."
See the op in oops...
When you slip up in front of your kids, look on the bright side, says Mitchell: It's a teaching moment. Have they just heard you bickering with your spouse? Then it's important to hear you reach an agreement. Have they seen you standing on a rickety chair to change a lightbulb? Then they need to see you recognize your mistake and find a safe substitute.
And if a child is the one to point out your error? "Sometimes my kids will say, 'Mommy, you said a bad word!'" Aberbach says. "I tell them, 'You're right, and I have to be more careful -- I got very angry and it just came out.'" Such admissions help kids learn honesty, remorse, and a willingness to accept criticism.
...But don't be afraid to be a grown-up
It's healthy for kids to see that you live by some different rules than they do. Explain that "I can have Diet Coke because my body's all grown up, but yours isn't" or "Daddy can stay up late because a thirty-five-year-old needs less sleep than a five-year-old."
"I think it's good that my children have seen adults having a drink at our home," says Judy Wertheimer of Pittsburgh. "I want them to understand that when they're older, there's a place for moderation. I'd worry if they'd never been exposed to alcohol, then went to college and started binge drinking."
On the other hand, Wertheimer feels that smoking in front of kids is never okay, since even moderate tobacco use can be very damaging to health. She has yet to tell sons Joey, 9, and Eli, 8, that she used to smoke. When she does, say experts, she should be honest and regretful -- and emphasize how lucky she is that she didn't end up with a serious illness.
Best policy when confessing a past vice: Consider whether your kids are ready to see shades of gray ("Mommy used to do a bad thing, but that doesn't make her a bad person"). Kids hit this stage at a wide variety of ages; they've probably reached it if they're asking detailed questions about your past habits.
Take heart -- and be a realist
No matter how well you behave, your kids won't always follow your lead. "My napkin goes on my lap at dinner, and I say, 'Please pass the salt,' and I model, model, model -- but sometimes it doesn't stick," Distler says.
Stubbornness may be to blame, therapists say. But often -- especially with younger kids -- it's just pure incomprehension ("Politeness and sharing: why?") or disinterest ("What's in it for me?").
Give a brief explanation, suggests Margaret Lindsey, M.D., a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Rochester, New York. When her 13- and 8-year-old daughters were younger, she'd say, for example: "One way we show we care about people is by demonstrating good manners." She and other parents also find it effective to use incentives ranging from TV time and eating out to ice cream and cash.
But even when he acts stubborn, your child may be learning more than you realize. (Who hasn't seen one preschooler correct another's etiquette at a playdate?) And all this role modeling is good for parents, too. "I'm not as scared of flying as I used to be," says Lisa Gorsch, mom of a 10-year-old and an 8-year-old in Charlottesville, Virginia. "I forced myself to keep a lid on my fear for their benefit." Distler rarely used to exercise. "I decided if I want my kids to have a healthy lifestyle, they have to see it -- so I started exercising, and now I love it."
The day I had my little epiphany about Davey's finger sucking, I promised him I would quit my own hands-in-the-mouth habit, cold turkey. Weeks later, he is proudly, enthusiastically...still sucking his fingers.
But at least my nails look fabulous.