Our children have role models all around them—good ones and bad ones. So, how do we be sure they internalized those behaviors exhibited by the good ones? Here are my thoughts on the subject.
Start with ourselves. We set the tone, the rules in the house, the expectations. We model the behavior they will mimic when responding to a rude person, a thorny situation, a compliment. If you don’t believe that, think of the last time you said, “I sound just like my mother.”
To do an adequate job of defining the models we want our children to follow, we have to be clear about our own values. If you are a religious person, try to state the primary values of your faith in terms a child can understand. This isn’t an attempt to convert anyone to my way of thinking on the subject, but as Unitarians we teach its seven principles to Mary Ellen. The children’s version, which they sing, is straightforward and simple. It contains values common to many faiths, and I present it here as one option.
• Each person is important.
• Be kind in all you do.
• Learn together.
• Search for what is true.
• All people need a voice.
• Be fair and peaceful too.
• Care for all the earth.
We have the obligation to set boundaries on media and electronic games—an issue I am coping with because I know so little about the current game apps. My jobs are to learn and to pay attention. I am distressed that so many of the games involve killing and being killed.
So what do we do if our child is watching, playing, observing behavior of which we disapprove? I remember when my son was about six, he loved the cartoon Speed Racer, which I knew he saw at his friend’s. So, knowing he would see it even if it was forbidden at our house, I watched it with him. I expressed dismay at the hero’s goal of killing an opponent. My son’s response was, “It’s okay. He’s the bad guy.” Not the value I wanted him to have, but it let me know his thinking and opened dialogue.
There are so many opportunities for children to observe bad models, it is extremely important to know what they see, what they play, who their friends are, and to point out those behaviors we don’t like. Of course, we constantly need to reinforce our own values by modeling. And, as always, keeping open the lines of communication is critical.
One last thought. Our children are often with us because of inappropriate behavior by their parents. When questions are asked, it’s time to be honest and not blaming. An example might be, “Daddy used illegal drugs. They have hurt him, so he can’t take care of you. And you are both sad about that. That’s why I want you to only use good medicine and only when you are sick.”