Your kids watch your every move. And they want to take those moves out for a spin. Obvious? Maybe. But it bears repeating because parents need to be hyper-aware of this important fact.
“Kids are sponges,” says Dr. Zubair Khan, child psychiatrist at the Montefiore School Health Program. “They pick up everything in their environment, everything they hear and observe from their parents.” Kids study parents’ behavior all the time, even when we think they’re not paying attention. And they’re not passive audiences. “They mimic us. So when we act in certain ways they’re going to pick it up and learn it for themselves.”
Kids don’t always see us at our best. It’s easy to teach them our bad habits, from big ones like angry outbursts to smaller matters like using inappropriate language. But while it’s easy to transfer those bad habits, it’s not inevitable. Child development experts say that once parents become mindful of how their actions affect their kids’ behavior, dads can model healthy habits for their children. Here are some of the more common behaviors we can model for our kids and how we can be more mindful of thgem.
1. Poor Communication About Emotions
Khan notes that dads often have a hard time being open with feelings and emotions. “We sort of have unfortunately normalized being not sharing our vulnerabilities,” he says.
Why It’s Harmful: When parents don’t talk through what we’re feeling, they discourage their kids from expressing themselves in healthy ways. “When kids don’t learn to express themselves, it can cause them to later on to become anxious or become sad,” Khan says. They won’t come to their parents to talk about how they’re feeling because they worry they might be judged or that it’s not something they’re supposed to do.”
How to Correct it: If you or your spouse is going through something bad, don’t hide it from your kids. “It’s okay to acknowledge that mommy or daddy might be feeling upset because they had a bad day,” Khan says. “And then comfort them and say that even though we had a bad day we know that it’s going to be fine. You don’t want them to overreact or make them feel fearful or anxious. But you do want to show that it’s okay to have feelings and that you’re going to work through them.” And not just negative emotions, either, but the full spectrum.
2. Flying off the Handle When You’re Stressed or Angry
Everyone gets frustrated or angry at times. It’s how we handle those emotions that matters. “We don’t want to teach our kids that it’s okay to be verbally aggressive or physically,” he says. “We want them to talk about how they’re feeling angry or frustrated and come up with ways to calm down and figure out ways to control it.”
Why It’s Harmful: If your kid starts screaming every time things don’t go their way, your parenting life is going to be an endless series of headaches. “If something happens in school with another kid or a teacher, they may react the same way [as you] and that may get them into trouble or put them in a place where they might be vulnerable to getting hurt,” Khan says.
How to Correct It: Make a conscious effort to show your kids how to work on lowering their frustration and handle stress in a healthy, appropriate way. “That means relaxation, things like exercise, mindfulness, yoga, just simple things, even like deep breathing or walking away from a situation that’s making us angry,” says Khan. “Even just talking it out about what’s bothering us.”
3. Holding Things in Until You Boil Over
Chloe Carmichael, psychologist and author of the new book Nervous Energy: Harness the Power of Your Anxiety, notes that men often resist acknowledging when they’re kind of upset or irritated by little things. “Suppose that a child is banging his toy truck on the ground repeatedly,” Carmichael says. “The father in my experience might be more tempted to try to white knuckle his way through it and just not say anything until he’s at a breaking point of frustration. And then, he wants to just go grab the truck and take it away and stop it and just go a little overboard with it.”
Why It’s Harmful: When you grin and bear it until you explode, you don’t credit for all the grinning and bearing. Only the explosion draws attention. Now imagine that dynamic with a kid. They’ll stew in their stress without saying a word. Then, they’ll go over the top seemingly out of nowhere.
How to Correct It: Learn to communicate at lower levels of irritability. There’s nothing wrong with telling a kid that they’re bugging you. Tell them that if they want to bang the truck, it’s fine but they can’t do it in the living room because the noise irritates me. In psychology, Carmichael says, this is called narrating your experience. And once your kid understands the emotional sequence you’re experiencing, they’ll be able to communicate their emotional experiences to you in the future.
Your kid’s ears don’t close up when you emit certain four-letter-words. In fact, since you’re probably saying them during emotionally heated moments, your kids are probably paying closer attention than ever.
Why It’s Harmful: Dr. Amy Nasamran, licensed child psychologist and founder of Atlas Psychology says that while swearing may seem to be a small issue, it can become a harmful habit when toddlers and young children are near.
“Developmentally, [children] learn language by listening to and replicating what they hear from trusted adults in their lives,” Nasamran says. “Young children may be hearing swear words and then using them in settings outside of the home, like in daycare or at the store.”
How to Correct it: Nasamran recommends cutting swear words out of your language altogether when kids are around. “Try coming up with a replacement word that you can use or implementing a swear jar in your home to limit the temptation to swear in front of your kids.” she says. “Include your kids and have them add to the swear jar each time they catch you using a bad word to really teach them to avoid saying the word.”
5. Never Admitting You’re Wrong
Admitting fault can, for many, feel like a weakness. “One of the things that can be really helpful for anybody, but especially for fathers, is that if you have made a mistake or you’re in a situation where you just don’t know,” Carmichael says.
Why It’s Harmful: Learning how to recognize mistakes is the first step to being able to solve those mistakes. By not demonstrating your ability to spot where you went wrong can block your kids from developing problem solving skills and can foster a false sense of self esteem.
How to Correct it: This is another opportunity to narrate your experience. In the moment when you realize that you forgot something or made a mistake, tell your kids what’s going on in your head as you’re course correcting. “When fathers can model that,” Carmichael says, “they show that part of being strong and capable and knowledgeable is having that awareness and being able to talk about it.”
Parents worry about their kids because they love their kids. But a little worry goes a long way.
Why It’s Harmful: “What the parent is sometimes inadvertently doing is modeling for the child that the more we worry the more we love,” Carmichael says. A certain amount of worry and anxiety is healthy but, Carmichael says, there’s a tipping point. Constant worry can undermine the child’s sense of confidence and resilience.
How to Correct it: Don’t stop being prepared in advance. But strive to model a certain amount of flexibility and the ability to handle problems and a vote of confidence in the child’s ability to deal with those things. “Being willing to shrug your shoulders and say we may not be perfect but we have it close enough is helpful,” Carmichael says.
7. Constant Phone Use
Your phone is always buzzing and your eyes are always drawn to its screen, even when your kids are calling out for your attention.
Why It’s Harmful: In the short term, having your face locked on your screen keeps you from being in the moment your kids are experiencing. “We’re not really giving full attention to our kids and they pick up on that,” Khan says. A few years down the road, your kids will half commit to interacting with you. “When they pick up on that as they get older and they have their own devices, then it’s hard to get them to not be stuck to their devices too,” Khan says.
How to correct it: Designate times that are no-phone zones and stick to it. “Try to make a point, whether it’s even 15 minutes or 30 minutes in a day, where your kids have your undivided full attention,” Khan says.