‘Do as I say, not as I do’ – if only this would work! The reality is that children mirror what they see their parents doing, and one doesn’t have to look far to see children emulating the behaviours they’re most familiar with.
From our experience with teenagers and their families, parents often realise all too late that the undesirable behaviours of their children are often influenced by their own actions. So in case you are pondering any new year resolutions, here are a few areas where positive parental modelling can be especially valuable:
1. Your approach to failure. Things go wrong in life – both on a macro scale and a micro one. Whether it’s an enormous career-changing disaster in the work arena or an online delivery gone wrong, children watch to see how you cope. The principle here isn’t that you must never show upset, frustration or even anger; but once those emotions are acknowledged, how do you bounce back? To what extent are you able to find a positive final outcome, however long it may take to get there, in the most difficult of circumstances? Your child will be learning about their own ability to cope from yours, so try to be mindful about letting them in on your journey from the initial distress to the final acceptance and moving on.
2. Your approach to food. Yes, we want young people to understand the principles of healthy eating, but we can spend too much time picking over the merits of one food versus another, ‘bad’ foods versus ‘good’ foods… The reality is that young people, and teenagers in particular, need to embrace the basic principle of eating when they’re hungry and not being scared to eat something for fear of what it says about their morality or self-discipline – which can lead to more harm than good. If you model healthy eating habits, without talking about them in great detail, your children will absorb this. They may spend a few years rebelling in some way, eating things that they know you don’t promote, but they will return to your healthy habits once their rebellion and the novelty of independent choice wanes.
3. Your approach to alcohol. I once knew a parent who declared, ‘I don’t know why my children drink so much.’ This same parent regularly got very drunk with friends, at football matches and at any big family event. Your children will take their cues for what constitutes ‘adult fun’ by watching what you do when you’re having fun. If it seems that being drunk is the way ‘fun’ happens, they will aspire to this too – and they’ll want to go one step beyond, because children are prone to live a little more on the edge than their parents. Whatever type of drinking you engage in yourself, your children will certainly follow, which presents a real opportunity to model behaviours you hope they will adopt.
4. Your approach to strangers. If you want your children to grow up to be adults who treat their fellow humans with kindness and generosity, let them see you doing this. Make sure they see you affording others some latitude, for instance, when impatience might threaten to overtake. Make sure they see you reaching out to help people who need some extra support. Let them in on any charitable efforts you make – not necessarily the monetary contributions, but the gesture and your reasoning.
5. Your approach to relationships. It is well understood that good quality relationships are fundamental to all of our lives. Whilst we all do relationships differently, strong, reliable relationships are vital to our sense of wellbeing and contentment. Relationships aren’t always easy, however, and teenage relationships are notoriously challenging as everyone is learning about themselves and about how to relate to others. Letting your children see you nurturing the relationships in your life – making them a priority, giving as well as receiving friendship, overcoming the hiccups that happen from time to time – will help them to do the same. Teenagers can be prone to thinking that relationships happen magically and effortlessly, and that, if their relationships are stumbling, they themselves must be flawed. It’s worth helping them to see that relationships need work, sometimes face challenges, and always need attention in order to bring us the fulfilment and vital companionship we need.
Blog post written by Ms Brass, Senior Deputy Head, who heads up the pastoral programme at South Hampstead.