Joel Wasserman, of Buffalo Grove, IL, doesn't smoke. And he's made sure his daughter Jessica, 7, understands the dangers of smoking too. So when family friends came to visit and he joined them outside for a cigar, Jessica was furious. "She stormed out of the house saying, 'What are you doing?'" he recalls.
Parents are bound to slip and break a rule in front of a child, whether it's smoking or cursing or not stopping completely at a stop sign. What's embarrassing is that kids, especially those in the early elementary school years, are often immediately on the case.
"Children this age are absolute," says David Pruitt, M.D., editor in chief of Your Child: What Every Parent Needs to Know About a Child's Development. "They believe authority has established rules and everyone should follow them. It's confusing for them to see parents breaking rules."
And when they see you act "bad," children react passionately partly because they fear for you, says Lynn Ponton, M.D., professor of psychiatry at the University of California at San Francisco. "They worry you'll be punished by someone, such as the police or even the school principal. And if you've described the health dangers of smoking or not wearing a seat belt then disregard those dangers, they may fear you're going to die," says Dr. Ponton. What can you do if you're caught in the act?
Admit your own mistake. Never deny it or, worse yet, tell your child that you have your own rules. "That will only haunt you down the road," Dr. Pruitt warns—your child may eventually reason that he can have special rules too.
USE THE TIME TO TEACH
Children between 5 and 8 look to their parents as their primary role models. If your child catches you cursing, admit you were frustrated but shouldn't have done it anyway. Reiterate that profanity is ugly and that no one, including you, needs to use it.
When Jessica confronted her father, he was quick to apologize. "I told her she was right and that smoking was bad," he says. "I've never smoked in front of her again. I don't want to be hypocritical."
CURB CITIZEN ARRESTS
If your child sees someone breaking a rule in public, such as littering, he may speak up, even to a stranger. If so, says Dr. Pruitt, "don't make him feel as if he's done something wrong." Explain later that we can't reprimand strangers; we leave that to their own families or some higher authority. What he can do is continue setting his own good example.