Monkey See, Monkey Do: How To Set A Good Example For Your Kids

Stop your kid from dropping the F-bomb in public (and solutions to other parenting faux pas).

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When my sister was little, my mother had a particularly foul-mouthed friend. One day, the two women and their two kids were in the car, trying to park on a busy street. The other mom was having a really hard time of it. Her 3-year-old yelled out from the back seat, “Just park the f***ing car, Mom!” Cue instant embarrassment. Don’t worry if you’ve been there—what mom hasn’t? From the mouths of babes tumble forth swear words, insults, and even tales of bodily functions meant to be kept secret. “I think most children learn to swear in the car, because almost all of us have done it and there’s so much at stake!” says Barbara Kaiser, early childhood consultant, trainer, and co-author of Challenging Behavior in Young Children: Understanding, Preventing and Responding Effectively. So how do we stop our kids from mimicking our bad behavior? And more importantly, how do we set a good example?

How do kids really learn?

“Babies imitate everything we do,” explains Kaiser. “I was chewing gum recently while playing with my grandson and he was making funny faces with his mouth and I realized he was copying me!” Kids take in the world through imitation, Kaiser says, and actions speak much louder than words. “They are much more attuned to what you do than to what you say. Research shows that 85 to 90 percent of your message is not what you say but how you say it.” (Want to see a clear example of this? Watch this.) Children are very tuned in to our facial expressions and body language. “There is nothing more profound than telling kids what to do and then not doing it yourself,” Kaiser says. “You lose trust. They don’t believe you.” Does this sound familiar? Two siblings are yelling at each other. In order to calm the chaos, you interfere…by yelling “Don’t yell at your sister!” How are they learning to resolve the conflict? Modeling good citizenship (as opposed to, say, money management skills) needs to start early—like, at birth. Once a child turns 10, it’s a little late to say, “Okay! Time to be a good person!” Here are three keys points to keep in mind:

1. Treat others the way … you want your kid to treat others.

Although every person is wired differently, it is unrealistic to expect your child to be a loving, considerate, empathetic person if you do not model those behaviors for them. It isn’t enough to say, “Be nice!” or “Listen!” and not do it yourself. A child may not know what exactly those directives mean. Rather than simply saying “Be kind to others,” do something. Help your spouse around the house, which teaches your kid about teamwork. Pick up garbage and teach them to recycle and compost, which teaches care for the world. Volunteer with your kid. Take food to a sick friend. Speak kindly to others everywhere you go. It is only when a child sees the behavior modeled that she knows every instance in which treating others well and engaging appropriately is possible. This is particularly important when it comes to fighting gender stereotypes. When my parents come to visit, my father does all the cooking. My daughter declared one day, “Grandpas cook!” No one had told her this. She had simply seen it in action. (This is much better than all the “We are all equal!” declarations in the world that aren’t backed up by much.) To see it is to believe it.

2. Don’t just tell them how to resolve conflicts. Show them how.

There’s a striking moment In Jancee Dunn’s bestselling book, How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids. Dunn admits to having a temper, and in the middle of a couples therapy session, the counselor tells her that when she’s screaming at her husband, her 6-year-old daughter thinks she’s yelling at her. A child often cannot distinguish between the two. They hear yelling and it scares them. It is vital that our children learn how to resolve conflict by means other than screaming, hitting, or storming out. They also need to learn that simply saying sorry usually isn’t enough to resolve a conflict or mend hurt feelings. A better way to model conflict resolution is to talk it out and show affection and understanding. This is not to say that you should resolve your marital conflicts in front of your kids! But it is okay for kids to witness conflict—it’s a natural part of being in a relationship, and kids should understand that. What’s not okay is allowing the behavior to spiral out of control with no resolution.

3. Remember: They can hear you.

Actions speak louder than words—especially when kids are really little—but kids are always picking up language. This is sometimes hard to register, especially after you’ve repeated “Put on your shoes” for the 8,000th time, but they are taking in everything you’re saying, whether they’re responding to it the way you wish they would or not. This doesn’t just apply to swearing but all language—how you talk to your spouse, your friends, the people at the grocery store, on the phone. (In fact, they pick up on tone much more than the actual words.) This doesn’t mean you should suddenly go silent, but be aware that there’s a little brain soaking up your every word, so think before you add a four letter word or particularly biting tone to your vocalizations of exasperated thought.

Need a few practical tips?

Want to limit screen time? Limit your own.

Most of us set rules around our children’s screen time—but do we limit our own device usage in their presence? “What is quality time?” Kaiser asks. “It doesn’t mean standing next to your child on your phone. Are you really spending quality time with your child?” This is perfect example of monkey see, monkey do. Why should they limit the time they spend on the iPad when their mom’s face is glued to her phone all day?

Don’t clean up after them.

This one can begin very early. Do not get into the habit of letting your kids make messes that you fix or clean up for them. You know those wonderful songs preschool teachers sing? “Clean up! Clean up! Everybody everywhere. Clean up! Clean up! Everybody do your share”? This isn’t just for school. All the rules that apply in public should apply at home: Teach him to clear his plate, to put away her clothes, and clean up their Legos. With young kids, framing it as a race often makes it a fun game (“I bet I can put away more Legos than you!”). Keep this in mind: Kids who don’t clean up after themselves at 4 don’t miraculously start doing it at 14.

Teach them the value of money early.

This year for Hanukkah, my husband and I gave our daughter $20 to spend however she wanted. She chose to go to a dance supply store and buy herself a leotard. Of course she wanted everything in the store, so she had to budget, which meant finding a leotard that was on sale and choosing accessories that didn’t send her over her limit. She was thrilled to find what she wanted, and the process of making decisions about what she could or couldn’t afford—and therefore pinpointing what she really wanted—was empowering and educational.

Cook (and garden, paint, and repair the house) together.

How does anything get done around the house? From cooking dinner every night to mowing the lawn on the weekend to repairing leaks in the roof, a parent is usually taking care of business around the home. Rather than shipping the kids off with an iPad, integrate them into the process. Invite a little one to sit on the counter while you cook (they can rip off mushroom stems or measure and pour); ask for an assistant to help with a repair. This teaches them how a family keeps a household going, and proves they are vital members of the team.

Abigail Rasminsky
Abigail Rasminsky has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Cut, O: The Oprah Magazine, and Marie Claire, among other publications. She lives in Los Angeles with her family.