Our children look to us to learn how to navigate life – and they’re more perceptive than we may realise. Could you be modelling bad behaviours?
As a parent, you’re the blueprint your child will use to construct themselves – their identity, thoughts, emotions, actions and perceptions will all be moulded primarily by you. While you’re probably consciously making an effort to teach your child good behaviours and provide a positive environment for them, you may be subconsciously modelling habits and attitudes that could be affecting them negatively.
According to Michelle Nortje, clinical psychologist at Meaningful Minds, your influence on your child begins before they’ve even entered the world. ‘In utero, babies’ hearing already starts to develop in the second trimester. The tone of your voice and the sounds of your environment already model for your baby the kind of world they’ll be entering.
For example, a conflictual environment and aggressive sounds may already lay down a subconscious expectation for an infant that this behaviour is what they’ll continue to experience,’ she explains. Joanna Kleovoulou, clinical psychologist and founder of the PsychMatters Centre, says studies have also shown that ‘many fundamental processes which reinforce learning are present and fully functioning at birth, or become available within the first five years of life’. This means children can begin mimicking behaviour very early on. For example, if a mother sticks out her tongue at her baby, the baby will try to copy her, Michelle explains.
Children also develop feelings about themselves early on, based on interactions with their parents, and respond to what they’ve learnt. For instance, says Michelle, if babies are cuddled and cared for, they feel loved and will begin showing their own signs of affection in response, like smiling and cooing. Children ‘soak up’ information and put it
into action long before they can truly understand the connections at play.
How important is positive role modelling?
Joanna explains that young children’s development and learning depend on the type of environment they live in, as their brains make sense of the world by observing interactions and categorising what they’ve learnt into cause-and-effect equations. Their experiences will shape their future behaviours, as what they’ve observed becomes part of an
information network in the brain from which they can later draw. This is how patterns of behaviour are passed down from generation to generation.
‘We know, for example, that parents who abuse substances are more likely to find their children doing the same someday. Adults who were abused as children may, in turn, hurt their own children,’ she says.
If you’d like to instil positive values like respect, care, fairness, trust and responsibility, your parenting style, behaviour
and interactions with your child are vital, as these are where they’ll truly learn how to become a ‘good person’, says Joanna. Michelle adds that the key is imparting empathy, an important skill which we learn from experience in our relationships. ‘If a child hasn’t had the direct experience of being thought about or held in mind by another person, then they’ll struggle to do the same. This “capacity for concern” is essential for a child to learn to take responsibility
for their own needs, while also having concern for others,’ she adds.
According to Joanna, parents who’re emotionally or physically distant, over-indulgent or controlling can negatively impact their child in terms of the values they impart, and which their child internalises. Michelle agrees, noting that children who aren’t able to develop empathy as a result of not having experienced it from their parents will find socialising difficult later in life.
‘Everything we know about human behaviour suggests that the family is the institution in which most children learn about character and morality,’ says Joanna – but adds that there’s definitely hope for people who experienced difficult childhoods. ‘There are many examples of people with horrific pasts who were resilient enough to transcend their early experiences,’ she says. Michelle agrees, saying research also shows that parts of a child’s brain negatively affected by trauma can recover to a degree, depending on the early interventions put in place. This is encouraging, she says, as it allows people to feel less guilty about not being the ‘perfect parent’ 100% of the time.
Common bad role modelling behaviours
We all make mistakes sometimes – but there are behaviours we should be more aware of, especially with our children watching and learning from us. Michelle and Joanna share examples of the most common areas of unhelpful parental role modelling:
‘For example, a mother with her own body image issues may inadvertently suggest to her daughter that she, too, needs to be preoccupied with how her body appears to herself or others,’ explains Michelle.
Use of technology
This is one of the areas we’re most guilty of role modelling badly. ‘I’ve noticed more parents seeking guidance about their children’s screen time and the subsequent power struggles regarding this. Parents don’t realise that children imitate through observation – we, as parents, are overly attached to our phones,’ says Joanna. Michelle adds that our excessive use of social media and screen time shouldn’t be a substitute for face-to-face connection and imaginative play, as this could hinder our children’s ability to learn social cues and norms.
‘Not allowing imitation or copying may make it harder for children to master certain skills. For example, if a parent doesn’t let a child try to use a knife and fork by themselves and make mistakes while trying, it will take the child much longer to learn to eat independently,’ explains Michelle.
Joanna notes that as a result of parents’ well-intentioned overprotection, children may begin fostering anxiety and dependency, often resulting in behaviours like over-eating. ‘Parents don’t realise their child may be using food as an
emotional blanket, or acting on a learnt observation of the choices parents make,’ she says.
Addressing conflict negatively
Such as using foul language or becoming aggressive in traffic or while handling a situation at home. Such interactions, along with your parenting style, can influence the types of relationships your child will develop on the playground, says Joanna.
What makes a good role model?
Michelle says we should be modelling behaviours we want our children to master and making sure we follow through. If you tell your child to put their dirty clothes in the laundry basket while you leave yours lying on the floor, the equation they’re trying to formulate regarding good behaviour won’t add up and will cause confusion. Importantly, she says, you need to model behaviour that encourages empathy and personal growth, such as showing kindness, empathy and respect, having fun, reading, completing chores, taking responsibility and apologising for mistakes.
Joanna suggests that you:
- Become aware of your words and actions and ensure that you do as you say.
- Become aware of what you say about yourself and your body, as this will impact your child’s self-esteem too.
- Be aware of your attitude towards life – an optimistic mindset will set the tone for a positive atmosphere at home.
- Own your mistakes. Admitting them creates a great opportunity for teaching your child about the values of honesty and accountability.
- Demonstrate respect at home and in other areas of your life through your words and actions.
- Engage effectively with problem-solving and deal with challenges in a productive and calm way. Your child will model that approach.
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