Take heart and be realisticFind 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.