“All the world’s a stage” and you are your child’s main attraction. From the youngest of ages your children are constantly watching (and eventually imitating) what you are doing. Like it or not you are a role model not only for parenting, but for being a partner, a head of family, a part of a community. Performance pressure, maybe a bit, perfection, definitely not. It’s more a matter of consciously creating behavioral good habits. You undoubtedly already know what not to do—watch your language, your anger, any violence – but here are some “what to dos” that can help your kids grow into the adults you want them to be:
Broadcast your emotions. You come home from work tired and irritable and find yourself snapping at your kids to pick up their toys–Now!—as soon as you hit the door. Rather than being reactive (and explosive), be responsible and be proactive. As soon as you walk in, announce that you are tired and irritable and need a half hour to chill out before dinner. By labeling your emotions your teaching your children to do the same; by taking responsibility for your feelings, your children don’t have to worry that they are always the cause of your moods or that they need to always walk on eggshells around you.
Apologize and explain. And if you did in fact snap at them about the toys or found yourself slipping into a lecture / rant with your teenage daughter rather than listening to what she was saying, mop up. Apologize for the snapping or the ranting, and without making excuses, help them understand you and what makes you tick: “I’m sorry I yelled at you about the toys as soon as I got home, but I was tired and cranky and should have taken a mommy time-out instead.” “I’m sorry I got so wound up and didn’t listen, but I guess I started feeling really worried when you described how hard school has been for you.” Again you are showing your children how to take responsibility for your emotions and behaviors, as well as how to be self aware and communicative.
Show your kids how you make up. All couples have arguments from time to time and strong emotions can leave especially younger children rattled. You need again explain and let them know that it is not about them or their fault.
But equally important is seeing how you both make up. This includes your adult-adult apology, the adult problem-solving conversation (complete with compromises), the make-up hug. This is how your children will learn that problems are something disagreeing adults can approach together, that talking and seeking solutions, rather than endlessly fighting about or sweeping problems under the rug are the mature ways of running a relationship and life.
Create couple time. While they may not like staying with the babysitter, seeing you set aside time to be together as couple teaches children that relationships are not only about taking care of children, working, or leading parallel lives, but keeping the relationship renewed by making time as a couple important.
Show affection. While sex is behind closed doors, affection shouldn’t be. Even though partners may differ in their comfort around displays of affection, the pat on the back, kiss on the cheek, the snuggle on the couch are not only helping children feel relax and safe, but teaching them ways adults can stay connected.
Create traditions and rituals. Children love the predictable; creating and being excited about family traditions and rituals not only help bind the family, but show your children the ingredients for doing exactly that.
Show how you reach out and consider others. Let them know when it’s time to make a birthday card for your sister. Have them help make and bring brownies to the new neighbors. Remind them that it is Sunday night and time to call up grandma. Help your children see how you keep ties with those you know and reach out to those you don’t.
Welcome different people into your home. There is the idea that if you want to teach children about peace, let them meet a diversity of people in your home. By doing this they are not only exposed to and learn to become more comfortable around people who are different from them, but they instinctively take in the values of openness, generosity, tolerance and trust.
Put your values into action. If you believe in political action, take your kids with you when you go vote or help campaign for candidates. If you strong religious beliefs, share not only what you believe and make sure your children participate with you.
Again, it is not what you say that children remember, but what you do. Let them see how your values and priorities shape your life.
There you have it, some ideas to get you started; feel free to add your own. Once again, perfection isn’t required. Becoming the role model you want to be is about clear intentions, about committing yourself to emotional responsibility and sensitivity, having a willingness to actively solve relationship problems. It’s about taking a proactive, rather than reactive or passive, stance towards creating a family life and personal life that represents who you are, and one that leaves room for change and growth and even mistakes. Don’t pressure yourself to do a all-at-once-make-over; instead decide on changes and habits you want to incorporate into your everyday life, and take them one step at a time. You can’t do it wrong.
And when your kids eventually become parents, they’ll be thanking you.