Role Model the Behavior You Want to See From Your Kids

Your child will copy what you do so it's important to be a good role model.
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Your children and teens are always watching what you do. They see how you handle stress. They watch how you treat other people and observe how you deal with your feelings. They soak in all that information like little sponges. Even when you think your children aren't paying attention, it's essential to be a positive role model.

Social Learning Theory

According to the social learning theory, people learn by watching others. For instance, the famous Bobo doll experiment demonstrated how kids imitate adult behavior. Researchers discovered that children treated a doll the same way the adults did.

Children who watched an adult become aggressive with the doll became aggressive in their interactions as well. Meanwhile, children who watched adults treat the doll kindly imitated the kindness.

You probably don’t need a fancy science experiment to see that kids imitate their parents. You probably notice it every day.

When you're sweeping the floor, you might notice your little one pretending to sweep too. Or, you might hear your preschooler put her stuffed bear to bed the same way you tuck her in at night. Kids repeat what they hear, and they imitate what they see. For this reason, you need to be mindful of the things you're inadvertently teaching your child.

What Behavior Are You Modeling?

Sometimes, you might unknowingly model unhealthy behaviors for your kids. Consider these scenarios.

  • A mother tells the cashier at a restaurant that her 12-year-old son is only 11 so she can get a discount at the buffet. Her son learns it's OK to lie sometimes to get what you want.
  • A father spends his evenings watching television, but tells his 14-year-old daughter she should read more.
  • Parents tell their kids to treat everyone with respect. Yet, they often make critical comments about other people behind their backs.
  • A divorced couple argues frequently about custody issues and visitation, but they expect their kids to get along with one another.
  • A parent tells her son to stop putting his fingers in his mouth; but when she's nervous, she bites her fingernails.
  • A mother tells her daughter to be kind to others, but she yells at the store clerk when the store refuses to take back an item she tries to return.
  • A father tells his kids that they should eat healthily, but he sneaks dessert after they go to bed.
  • Parents tell their kids to share and be generous with what they have, yet they never make donations or get involved in any sort of charity or volunteer work.
  • A father smokes cigarettes. While he has a cigarette in his hand, he tells his kids that smoking is unhealthy and that they should never pick up the habit.
  • Parents tell their kids to take responsibility for their behavior and their choices. Yet, when they forget about their child’s dentist appointment, they argue with the receptionist and tell her she clearly made a scheduling error.

Follow Your Own Rules

It’s really hard to model appropriate behavior for your kids all the time, and no one is expecting you to be perfect. But you should strive to model the rules and behaviors you want your kids to follow.

For instance, if you don't want your kids juuling, it's probably not a good idea for you to continue using e-cigarettes. Likewise, if you want your kids to be truthful, you should strive to be honest. For example, if you tell white lies rather than being truthful, your kids will learn that lying is acceptable.

Show your kids how to follow your household rules by modeling them every chance you get. Likewise, use discipline that teaches life skills, and explain how these rules will help them later in life. If you show kids that you honor the rules, it will increase the effectiveness of your discipline strategies.

There may be instances where you need to explain any decisions that might be confusing.

For instance, if your friend bakes you a cake, and you think it tastes horrible, you still might tell them it was delicious to spare their feelings. When something like that happens, you'll want to explain to your children that you didn't want to hurt your friend's feelings.

Model Life Skills

You also have opportunities every day to live a life worth emulating. Think about what you want your kids to learn from you and try to model that in your life. Naturally, there will be times when you make mistakes or don't do things exactly as you had planned. But, that is OK.

When that happens, take the opportunity to talk to your kids about where you slipped up and how you hope to be different next time. Kids learn important lessons from you even when you make mistakes.

For instance, if you handle poor decisions with grace and don't beat yourself up, they'll also learn to be kind to themselves when they screw up. Here are some examples of other things you can model for your kids. Use these ideas to become a good role model, or come up with ideas of your own.

Live a Healthy Life

When you eat healthily and exercise on a regular basis, you're setting a good example for your kids. Plus, if you are fixing healthy meals and limiting fast food, you are helping your kids avoid childhood obesity.

Of course, try not to be overbearing or restrictive in your efforts to set a good example. Being controlling about food or obsessing about how your body (or your child's body) looks, could lead to body image issues and eating disorders.

Show Respect and Teach Empathy

Every parent wants to raise kids who are kind to others. This goal becomes a reality when you model respect and empathy in your own life. Be respectful to everyone you interact with and soon your kids will be doing the same.

Whether it's the cashier in the grocery store or the waiter in your favorite restaurant, smile, say please, and thank you, and before long your kids will be doing that too.

Allow your kids to see you being compassionate and empathetic to others too. Use situations that occur around you to talk about how others might be feeling. Teaching kids to be empathetic is one of the best ways to prevent them from bullying others.

Tackle Technology Issues

If you are like most parents, you worry about the amount of screen time your kids are getting each day. Whether it is the time younger children spend watching shows and playing online games, or it is the time teens spend on social media, every parent worries that their kids are in front of a screen too frequently.

But before you can say anything to your kids, take a look at the amount of time you're spending in front of a screen. Even if you're working, answering emails, and doing things you consider productive, you are still setting an example for your kids. Address your technology use first, and then attempt to set some standards for the kids.

Work Hard

Developing a solid work ethic is a life skill every kid needs. Whether it is working hard in school, at a part-time job, or on a sports team, kids need to have a good work ethic. The best way to instill this skill is to first model it at home.

Whether you go to work every day or you work from home, allow your kids to see you working. Even doing chores together as a family is a great way to instill a solid work ethic in your kids.

Volunteer in the Community

When you volunteer in the community, you're showing your kids that you care about the world they live in. And, they learn to care too. Whether you volunteer in the schools, participate in a community clean-up project, or donate food and supplies to the local food pantry, you're showing your kids what goes on outside of your home is important—that giving back is essential to making the world a better place.

You also can get your kids involved in volunteering. When they regularly help others, even if it is in a small way, they will learn to appreciate what they have.

Demonstrate Social and Emotional Skills

Pay attention to emotional and social skills too. Show your children how to greet someone and how to ask questions when they are confused. Instruct them on how to meet new friends and invite others to join in. Demonstrate how to manage emotions, like frustration or sadness. Talk about your feelings when you are upset, angry, or sad, and encourage them to do the same.

Teach New Skills

When you want to teach your children something new, whether it's how to make their bed or how to tie their shoes, show them how you do it. Then, let them practice it on their own. Showing, rather than telling, can be the best way for kids to learn a variety of new skills.

A Word From Verywell

Your primary job as a parent is to help mold your kids into kind, respectful, honest, and caring people. And, sometimes the easiest way to do that is to be a good role model. This may mean taking a closer look at your own habits and making some changes. But, if you do, both you and your kids will benefit.

6 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Lind J, Ghirlanda S, Enquist M. Social learning through associative processes: a computational theory. R Soc Open Sci. 2019;6(3):181777.  doi:10.1098/rsos.181777

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Creating rules.

  3. American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. Role models and children.

  4. US Department of Agriculture. 10 tips: be a healthy role model for children.

  5. Baker J, Cobly S, Schorer J, Wattie N, eds. Routledge Handbook of Talent Identification and Development in Sport. Routledge. 2017.

  6. Parenting Matters: Supporting Parents of Children Ages 0-8. National Academies of Science Engineering Medicine.

Additional Reading

By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a psychotherapist, an international bestselling author of books on mental strength and host of The Verywell Mind Podcast. She delivered one of the most popular TEDx talks of all time.