How to Teach Older Children to be Role Models

Key takeaways for your large family.

Older brother helping baby sister to walk

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Some, though certainly not all, older children can possess an inner desire to be a nurturing, wise, and loving role model to their younger siblings. There’s also a likelihood that younger children will inherently look up to their older kin.

While the responsibility to be a great role model ultimately falls on the parental figures in a child’s life, it's perfectly OK to encourage an already existing desire to be a role model. Below we’ve outlined five effective strategies you can use to help foster that dynamic in a healthy and fruitful way.

Model What it Looks Like to Be a “Good” Role Model

Each of the three therapists we spoke to about this issue all agreed that the most effective way to teach older children how to be a great role model is to be a great role model yourself. “Kids learn more from watching behavior than anything else, so if their older sibling is acting as a great role model but you as the parent aren't, that's confusing,” says Rachel Wright, LMFT and co-founder of the Wright Wellness Center.

For example, if you’d like your children to be more patient with their younger siblings, it’s vital that you offer all your children that same behavior, says Amber Trueblood, MFT, author, and mother of four. The same is true with offering help when it’s needed (or even when it’s not), extending verbal affirmations and encouragements, and giving plenty of feel-good physical affection.

“Most parents desire their children to mature into healthy, happy individuals who show respect and consideration for each other in the family and outside the family. These desirable character qualities cannot just be verbally taught; they need to be experienced, which is why it is important for parents to serve as this positive role model for their children.” -Linda Snell, LCSW and MFP at New Method Wellness.

"A child who is able to follow the example of a parent modeling positive social behaviors is able to adopt habits and perspectives that can last a lifetime."

Some other qualities that parents can intentionally role-model include honesty, integrity, compassion, dependability, dedication, self-awareness, self-efficacy, the importance of connecting with others, family, sense of belonging, and personal values.

Surround Your Family With Other Positive Role Models

“I believe most of us would agree that children learn from role models and mimic behaviors of those people they admire,” says Snell. Though you, the parents, serve as the primary role models in your children’s lives, the friends and family members your family spends time with will also have influence. For that reason, it’s important to keep quality company.

It’s also OK to have thoughtful conversations about unsavory behaviors your kids might witness along the way either within your family and social circle or in public. Instead of shielding your kids’ eyes, consider using these uncomfortable moments learning opportunities.

In these scenarios, it’s important to call out the behavior itself versus ingraining a “good” and “evil” mentality. No human is perfect, fallibility is OK, and accepting responsibility and apologizing for bad behavior allows room for personal growth and development.

Discuss What Being a Role Model Means

Foster healthy dialogue about the very topic of being a role model. It’s not something you have to belabor but having thoughtful conversations throughout your child’s life on this topic can help. “Everyone has a different understanding of what a role model means,” notes Wright. “For that reason, getting clear on this is incredibly important for the clarity, effectiveness, and longevity of positive role model behavior."

Before having these conversations, it’s also beneficial to make sure you have a solid sense of what being a role model is as a parent and as an older sibling, and how these two things can vary. It can also be helpful to figure out what your ideal relationship looks like between your oldest and youngest children. One way to do this is to speak with your partner or other parents, and Wright says that “journaling it out can also help bring that clarity.”

Nurture Healthy Bonding Between Your Children

“To increase the benefit of the eldest child’s positive role, it is crucial for parents to foster a supportive relationship between the children from the start,” says Snell. “You can do this by teaching your children to be each other’s support (in addition to the parents).”

This means respecting all your children’s individual needs, avoiding the tendency to compare one child to another, setting ground rules and holding each child accountable in the same capacity, showing equal love for all, and anticipating and identifying difficult family dynamics and conflicts and thoughtfully working through them together. It also means spending quality time together as a family unit and encouraging any positive behaviors and affections you see between siblings. 

It’s OK if you never master all the above — we’re all in stiff competition with The Brady Bunch here — but do make it your goal.

Show Appreciation for Excellent Role Model Behavior

One of the most important actions you can implement is genuinely acknowledging and showing your pride and appreciation when the older siblings show any hints of great role model behavior, says Trueblood.

She adds, “Instead of pointing out what you do not like, try focusing as much as possible on what your older child(ren) are doing that is positive. You can let them overhear praise when on the phone grandma or an old friend or tell them directly.”

Mention how impressed you were when you saw your older child helping their younger sibling with homework, how thoughtful your child was when their sibling was feeling bummed out, or how on top of their chores a child is and how it’s been such a help in your household.

A Word from Verywell

It’s important that zero pressure is applied to older kids to serve the “role model” role, and it’s perfectly OK if your oldest child doesn’t have an innate desire to serve as an active role model.

Our ultimate goal in writing this article was to reiterate the importance of serving as parental role models for your children, and how that might positively impact the relationships between your oldest and youngest children.

You can also foster good role model behavior by being clear about what that even means (both with yourself and as a family), surrounding your family with positive role models, gently calling out bad behaviors, and enthusiastically encouraging good behaviors.


By Wendy Rose Gould
Wendy Rose Gould is a lifestyle reporter with over a decade of experience covering health and wellness topics.