Raising kids who are polite, self-aware, adventurous, or possessed of any number of other positive traits that make for happy adulthoods is extraordinarily difficult. The puzzle of raising a complete person is — among other things — what keeps parents up at night. And considered in the abstract, it’s more or less impossible to solve. Fortunately, there’s a different way to think about handing down positive personality traits: It’s all about parents modeling good behavior. And that it doable. Adults should, at least in theory, be capable of curbing their own worst impulses.
Decades worth of scientific and sociological studies prove that kids are mimics. They watch adults and emulate their behavior. When adults are patient, the kids they are patient with inherit that forbearance. When adults are kind to kids, they inherit that generosity. So the question for adults is this: What are the best ways to consciously model moral behavior. Well, there are clear answers. Over the course of nine interviews with child development experts, researchers, pediatricians and psychologists, Fatherly asked for examples of ways in which parents can create behavioral rubrics for their kids. And the experts delivered. Here are the simple habits and actions they suggested.
How To Model Politeness:
- Say “please” and “thank you” to food service workers, store employees, and school security officers.
- Relentlessly remind kids to engage in polite behavior. If they try to leave the dinner table before asking if they can be excused, remind them to ask. Remind them to put their napkin on their laps. To speak with their mouth empty, not full of food.
- Positively redirect bad behaviors. If a kid is reaching across the table to grab a crayon and knocking over stuff in the process and interrupting others work, ask them if they want a crayon, and remind them that they can ask next time. Tell them why that’s more polite.
- Make politeness about more than manners. Remind kids that it’s about treating others with basic decency and respect. Even call it “The Golden Rule.”
How to Model Strength:
- Make a point of exercising, even when you’re busy. If you’re going to the zoo that day, tell your kid you have to wake up early to work out before. Tell your kid if you worked out while they were at school. Make it a part of your every day.
- Grieve in front of your kids. If a pet passes, kids should see you mourn while still being able to cook dinner, be a strong parent, and go to work.
- Take breaks from work and engage in laziness. While working hard — like if you’re cleaning gutters — take a break and show kids that work can still be done while taking care of yourself.
- Take big setbacks in as much stride as possible. If you get laid off, talk about what you could have done better, what you know you did well, and that it will be okay.
How to Model Skepticism:
- Ask a lot of questions when making big decisions in front of your kid. If you are trying to buy a new car, and you’ve taken your kid to the dealership, ask a lot of questions. Does this van get good gas mileage? Is the safety rating acceptable?
- Explain all the decisions you make, too. If you chose to eat an apple instead of potato chips, explain why. Thought goes into even the most simple of decisions and those decisions stack up for a full life of choices.
- Ask kids about their choices. Why did they take that toy from the other kid? Why did they choose the color orange crayon instead of yellow?
How to Model Adventurousness:
- Let kids explore. By the time kids are toddlers, they hear “No” every seven minutes. Ensure that they’re safe, but let them climb high on the jungle gym if they’ve never done it before.
- Let them weather skinned knees on their own. A skinned knee needs not much more than Neosporin, a bandaid, and a kiss. Don’t get upset when it happens. Let kids jump back up and keep playing.
- Help kids be emotionally adventurous. If they get invited to a birthday party and are shy, encourage them to go for just an hour. And then congratulate them on their adventurousness.
- When kids make decisions, walk them through the consequences of that decision. Kids should feel free to be the main actors over their own lives, but they also shouldn’t make reckless choices. Ask them what will happen if they tell you they’re going to wear dirty clothes or throw rocks at a kid on the playground.
How to Model Empathy:
- Talk about your feelings. Exhaustively. Say when you are tired or upset or annoyed and explain why, within reason. “I’m tired because I didn’t sleep well.” “I’m annoyed because we’re late to soccer practice because of traffic I probably could have predicted.” Try not to get too upset, visibly. But talk it out. This will help kids realize they can resort to language when they’re upset, too.
- Ask your kid about their feelings. When they fail a test, ask them how that feels. Tell them that it’s okay that they are upset and that they messed up and that once they’ve calmed down you can come up with an attack plan.
- Be patient when your kids are having tantrums. That’s really hard. But kids are often upset because they’re not getting what they want. Acknowledge that. Don’t give in, but let them know you understand.
- Use emotional vocabulary with boys, and girls. Research shows that adults tend to use more emotional vocabulary with girls when playing (Wow, how is that doll feeling?) vs. boys (Make the truck go vroom!) Switch it up a little, and help kids gain the tools to be emotionally available.
- Do things for others, like helping someone carry a stroller up subway steps, without being asked, in front of your kids.
- Engage in active reading. When you’re reading a book to your kid, ask your child about all of the feelings each character might be going through. About what they might be thinking.
How to Model Resiliency:
- Apologize when you have done wrong to your kid. Did you get upset with them over something really minor? Say so. Tell them you are sorry you did wrong. That will show them that you can make mistakes, own up for it, and still be a good parent.
- Apologize in front of your kid when you’ve done wrong to others. If you mistakenly got cross with a customer service representative or cut someone off at the grocery store, apologize to them and then talk to your kid about it.
- Stop looking at your phone all the time. For real. Phones have allowed people to avoid becoming bored; it’s a convenient time-filler that occupies the mind so the mind doesn’t have to occupy itself. Every time you pull out your phone in line at the grocery store you’re telling your kid two things: 1) that you must constantly be distracted, and 2) that the phone is better than them. Don’t do that.
How to Model Confidence:
- Compliment kids for their hard work, not always the results of the hard work. Resilient kids are kids who value the work itself rather than the results. They are kids who know that their successes are based on their efforts and their efforts are more important than getting the “A” or being the star player. So tell them, “When you defended that goal in the second quarter, that was really awesome.”
- Talk about yourself and compliment yourself. When you’re talking to your kid about your accomplishments at work, say, “I worked really hard on this project and my skills at accounting really showed through.” Or say, “I’m a great listener, so I remember when you told me this.”
- Compliment others in front of your kids — especially if they are friends with your kid. You don’t want a kid who thinks they accomplish their greatness alone, so if they are on a sports team and played great, make sure to bring up team members and friends who also contributed to the success. This will ensure that your kid isn’t so cocky.
How to Model Self-Awareness:
- Take the long view. Like every trait, self-awareness is something that is a constant project. As adults, we learn new things about ourselves all the time. Being patient with your kids through their phases and their wild ideas and giving them the space to question who they are is important.
- Remind your kids, literally, to look around them. Being self-aware in mind is one thing; being self-aware in physical space is another. Making sure kids aren’t grabby at others toys or are aware there’s a playground line is not only making sure they are engaging with polite, fair play: it’s also helping them realize that their body might cause annoyance to others.
- Don’t over-do it on the cautionary tales. If your kid is going through something tough like social rejection in the form of not being invited to a birthday party, never extend beyond saying “I know how you feel.” Let your kid think about why they may not have been invited on their own, and don’t let them immediately jump into calling other people mean, or hateful, or bad. Don’t engage in that, either. Just talk to them about their feelings and make them a good snack.