Parents - We Can't Escape What We Model
By Dr. Randy Cale
I recently had a conversation with one of my adult coaching clients
about his twelve year old son. He was talking about son's growing
negativity, how he couldn't stand to be around his own son, and how
his son seemed to always have to have the last word.
He went on to discuss how frustrating it was to
listen to him complain repeatedly. He also explained his many
efforts to nurture him toward more independence and autonomy, and
was exasperated with his inability to convince him to stop blaming
others for his misery.
As my client was taking, notice how he is using his
time with me. He is complaining about his son complaining...and he
doesn't even notice it! This is how modeling works.
HOW he does life…is HOW his son does life. He just
doesn't see it...because he has the mental story that he is worried
about his son's tendencies, and is blind to his own tendencies. He
sees his son as negative, always complaining and unwilling to walk
away from a conversation without getting in the last word.
Yet, the reality is that this dad is always
complaining to his son about his behavior. He constantly thinking
negative and pessimistic thoughts about his son. Ultimately, dad is
also unwilling to let his son have the last word, and it is dad who
really wants to have the last word
Can you get this?
While strongly asserting his disapproval of his
son's complaints, he is the one complaining...ABOUT HIS SON! How he
is using his attention is very similar to the way his son uses his
attention. The problem is not that this father is inaccurate in his
view of his son: it's likely that his son is challenging. However,
what dad is missing here is the fact that he is modeling (and thus
teaching) the very behavior he doesn't want his son to have.
How you do life is (likely) how your kids will do
The key purpose of this article is to heighten your
awareness of the power of modeling. In the session with my client,
he is hooked into discussions about his son's behavior. He is caught
up in the content of his complaints and neediness, and focused on
"how my son is making himself miserable." In doing so, he is missing
"how he is making his own life miserable." He just can't see it!
What we model affects children on several levels,
and has more power than we suspect. This is because children learn
the "how" of living by how parents use their attention and energy.
We teach it by what we talk about. We teach it by what we complain
about. We teach by what we notice, and what we ignore.
We are constantly modeling to our children "how" to
live. There are other influences, of course, but modeling is the
most powerful part of the teaching experience for children. So,
while the words and contents of your conversations with your kids
are important, the more powerful part of your role as a teacher and
guide is through the way that you live. It's through how you do your
Here are three specific questions to consider as you
attend to what you model.
1. What are my daily habits?
For most of us, we are well aware of the kinds of
things that we can do that are healthy versus the kinds of things
that are unhealthy.
There is no longer much argument about whether or
not smoking is unhealthy...it will likely harm you. There is little
debate about whether or not exercise is good for you...a lack of
exercise will compromise your life. There is little need to discuss
the role of processed sugars and simple carbohydrates…they are
harmful over the long term.
In situation after situation, how you discipline
yourself to maintain healthy habits is much more important than any
words or discussions that you have about those habits. In reality,
this is about walking our talk and noticing whether we use words to
try to teach, or do we lead with healthy habits that demonstrate our
Do I habitually get angry when I don't want my
children to react with anger? Do I speak negatively about the
in-laws when I want my children to be respectful? Do I regularly
talk about exercise, but my kids have never seen me lift anything
other than the TV remote?
2. What do I regularly discuss?
When discussing your day-to-day activities and the
events of your life, what do you tend to focus on? What gets your
repeated attention in your home?
Do you complain about your co-workers? Do you focus
on what your children aren't doing? Do you keep discussing problems?
Do you keep noticing what is not working ... rather than what is
All in all, is it a world where your kids are
experiencing you as a complainer, focused on negativity ...or do
they experience you as a parent focused on what's working and going
This is a critical distinction to make. It will
shape how your children learn to focus their attention.
3. What behavior gets my repeated attention?
In the day-to-day life around your home, what hooks
your attention? What pulls you in? What do you notice most?
Are you constantly reminding your kids to take care
of their clothes? Is it endless nagging to keep them on top of their
Or ...is most of your energy focused on catching
moments of cooperation? Are you vigilant in noticing the kids while
they are doing their homework....rather than while they are staring
out the window?
Do you comment on parts of the room that are neat
and orderly…rather than the parts that are not quite there yet?
Ultimately, at the end of the day, what has gotten
the bulk of your attention?
In this way, you teach your kids "how" to live life.
You're teaching them whether to invest their energy in what they
value and appreciate…. or whether to invest their energy in finding
problems that they don't like.
These three questions are really just a wakeup call
to be aware. For all of us, it is likely that the first and most
important influence on our children will be how we live our lives,
rather than how we tell our children to live their lives. So we must
walk our talk to have integrity, and to unlock the power contained
in the many other tools available for parents striving to be
effective and loving guides for our children.
Dr. Randy L. Cale is a licensed psychologist and offers parental coaching through his website