Mind Matters — Modeling for the Future

Parents may want their children to adhere to the myth, “Don’t do as I do, do as I say.” However, the truth is quite to the contrary. From infancy onward, children model their behaviors based on what their parents do.

Phyllis Magrab, Ph.D., director of the Georgetown University Center for Child and Human Development, reminds us that toddlerhood is an age when children imitate other people’s behavior. Parents can take advantage of this fact by modeling the good manners they would like to see in their children. Magrab suggests that adults use the words “please” and “thank you” not only in public but also with family and to encourage their children to do likewise.

Young children, including infants and toddlers, are observing the grownups more than is realized, and we should never assume they don’t understand. The behavior and conduct of the grownups set the standard for what to expect in children. In other words, if polite behavior is the expectation, then polite behavior is what needs to be modeled. I smile when I recall my toddler daughter greeting my mother’s neighbor by reaching out to shake this woman’s hand and saying “How ya doin’?” (Pleased at her social skills, I also took to not dropping my g’s.)

We can also share with young children our own noticing of the thoughtful actions of others. “How kind of Mr. Smith to water our newly planted trees while we were away.” or “How good of that lady to let us go before her in the grocery line when she saw we only had two items.”

On the other hand, I remember my pre-school children being confused by bad behavior as well and the incident they observed was a sad opportunity for learning: On the way home from Montessori school one day, they saw older boys throw trash in a stream. They asked, “What are they doing? That is not right, is it?” I explained to my three and four year-olds that, no, that was not right and that those boys should not have been doing that. I also, I think, let them know that it was good that they recognized this as unacceptable behavior.

So it is that toddlers learn about behaviors through various experiences: In these experiences, the hope is to promote thoughtfulness and courtesy. Real life activities—such as going to public museums or setting up play dates can help toddlers learn how to interact politely. Of course, their most important learning comes from watching the behavior of grownups, particularly the ones who care for them.

Toddlers will, of course, be toddlers, and have “meltdowns,” get “hangry” (hungry and angry), be tired. Also toddlers (actually children all the way into their teen years) are self-centered. It is the job of the adults in their lives to help them recognize that “other people matter and deserve respect,” as says Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D., of Temple University (Philadelphia). Hirsh-Pasek is notable in the field of child psychology for her research in language development.

Some consider that empathy can be learned early on. Toddlers can be begin to understand how what they do affects others—they can learn to put themselves in the other’s shoes. For example, if a child yanks a toy away from another, they can be helped to understand how they would not like that done to them. In little ways, children learn feelings for others.

Ken Haller, M.D., professor of pediatrics at St. Louis University, recognizes positive reinforcement as a way to instill care and confidence in a child. Rather than point out what the child did wrong or didn’t do, focus on giving positive feedback for what the child has done, the more specific the better: for example, not “Oh, you played well.” but perhaps “That was really nice the way you shared your favorite toy with your friend today.”

It has been said, “the future will be different if we make the present different.” Toddlers today become our leaders tomorrow. It is never too late to start in the present to make the future different. It all depends on what we model …