The power of role-modelling

July 21, 2014

My child has little patience when it comes to accomplishing a challenging task. He becomes quickly frustrated, and is apt to throw things down in a rage. The plastic coating on his bicycle helmet has several cracks in it from being thrown down onto the road during the process of learning to ride a bike. We’ve all encountered adults who still behave like this. So childish, we all tut. I don’t wish my child to become one of these adults. So how do I help him develop the patience and emotional regulation he needs? 

Time-outs, lectures or sticker charts don’t help children develop these traits. How could they? It’s all about role-modelling, the most powerful tool we parents have at our disposal. 

I recently bought my child a loom band kit at his request. He’d seen his friends making things with loom bands at school, so he set to work right away. But his fine motor skills aren’t the greatest, and he quickly became frustrated in his weaving attempts. Luckily I saw this coming and managed to rescue the box before several hundred small coloured rubber bands covered the kitchen floor. But I knew he’d be disappointed if he didn’t manage the task, he’d been so excited when I gave him the box, so I decided a little encouragement and guidance was in order. But first I had to figure out how to weave a wristband myself! Not the kind of thing I excel at myself.

My child watched as I followed the instructions carefully, becoming excited to see the end product as I neared completion. When it came to removing the band from the loom board, a couple of the bands somehow popped out and fell to the floor. He immediately started to angrily express his disappointment in his usual dramatic way. I was irritated and annoyed by his behaviour. I was the one who’d done all the work, after all. But stopping myself from reacting, I managed to speak calmly instead. 

“This is the first time I’ve made one of these, so it might go wrong, but I’m going to keep trying. It might not work out, but I can always start again if I have to” 

My child looked almost surprised and a little fascinated. He immediately stopped his remonstrance and continued to watch my attempts to salvage my work. The wristband was a little small, having lost some bands, but my child grabbed at it delightedly. 

“It’s a little short, but it’s my first attempt. Now I know how to do it, I can try and make a longer one next time”, I added.

He rushed off to show his Dad. 

“Mummy made this wristband. We’re going to try and make a better one next time.”

 The next morning I came downstairs to find all kinds of colourful creations and a very satisfied child.

mirrorThe importance of role modelling simply cannot be over-estimated. It can be applied to anything we wish our children to learn. We can model sharing by letting our child see us sharing with friends or other family members. We can use a disagreement with our partner to model how we talk calmly and respectfully with each other to sort out our differences. From acts of kindness, to healthy eating, the possibilities are endless. 

Kids are such little copycats. From when they’re very small, we hear our own words echoed back at us, see our habits and mannerisms develop in our children like a mirror. But we need to remember this mirroring doesn’t stop as kids get older. It may become less immediately apparent, but make no mistake; role modelling is so powerful it can be dangerous. Shouting or smacking are obvious examples, but we need to think about every aspect of our behaviour as adults. Children really do learn by example. 

So when we reject conventional parenting methods, and strive to understand the widely misunderstood application of the word ‘discipline’, we model compassion, respect, patience, empathy, and problem-solving, instead of control, power, bribery and manipulation in our fruitless attempts to teach what can only be taught through modelling, and developed over time, not overnight.

“Do as I say, not as I do” won’t cut it. Be the person you want your child to be.

Please, thank-you, and sorry.

December 15, 2011

“Say please”, “Say thank-you”, and “Say sorry right now!” are words we hear adults saying to children all the time.

Getting our children to say these words is not just about teaching good manners; we really want them to be thoughtful, considerate, grateful, polite, and respectful.  In other words, we want them to mean it.  That’s the difficult bit.  It may be easy enough to get children to parrot certain words, but I’m sure we all get the feeling sometimes that they don’t really mean it, and the words become somewhat hollow if we’re having to prompt them every time.  And do we really want to teach them to say things they don’t mean?

Here’s my take on it:

  • Please

It does irritate me when my child makes me feel like a servant.  “I’m hungry”, or “I want….”  instead of “please can I have” is something I hear everyday. I try to remind him, respectfully, to say please, but I don’t do it every time – it’s irritating having to say it over and over, to me and probably to him too.  More importantly, I try to say please to him, and let him hear me say it to other people – this is how I believe he’ll really learn.  The good news is, he nearly always says please to other people, so something’s working!

  • Thank-you

I always feel slightly ashamed if someone gives my child something and he doesn’t say thank-you. My response is either to say thank-you myself, on his behalf, making sure he hears me, or sometimes I’ll whisper a reminder in his ear.  When I do this, I find he is always very eager to say thank-you, indicating to me that he really just forgot in the excitement of the moment, his focus having shifted quickly to whatever he has received.  I don’t want to make him feel bad about this, but just help him with a gentle reminder.

  • Sorry

This is a tough one. I used to make my child say sorry if he hurt or upset another child, especially when he was in his rather aggressive toddler phase.  I thought it made him take responsibility for his actions.  Then I decided that this wasn’t working. He said the word, but didn’t mean it.  Future behaviour was unchanged.  Worse, he seemed to think it magically cancelled out his previous actions.  He could do whatever he liked then say the magic word and everything would be OK.  Also, forcing him to say sorry when he was upset, having a bit of a meltdown, and clearly didn’t mean it not only felt punitive, but pointless – he wasn’t in any state to be learning anything from this.

Removing him from a situation, helping him to calm down, then talking about the effect of his behaviour on others, and showing him ways to make amends when he is ready, I have found much more effective.

Also, as with please and thank-you, modelling the behaviour you wish to see is always the most effective way of teaching a child. I am not afraid to say sorry to him when I have been snappy, have jumped to a conclusion, or have just made a mistake. I don’t think our children need to see us as perfect, just as human, and ready to admit when we’re wrong.

Now that my child is nearly five, I’m finding these methods are starting to pay off.  He frequently remembers to say please, thank-you or sorry without being prompted, and I can sense that when he says it he really means it.  This makes me feel so proud of him. One genuine unprompted thank-you makes up for fifty forgotten ones, a true expression of regret is a true achievement in terms of a child’s emotional development, and I’m confident there’ll be more and more as he grows, along with his growing sensitivity and ability to empathise with other people.