Much More than Setting a Good Example
Have you ever watched your child and had that moment of realization that they are copying your every move or voice inflection? Our children are so often small reflections of ourselves. They mirror us in so many ways, good and bad, but we sometimes forget the power and influence that modeling behaviors have on children. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard from the kids “But Dad did it!” only to hear my dear husband say, “I was just showing you what not to do” with a grin.
Not only are our kids tuned into our every move, but they absorb the actions and words of those around them, especially people who they perceive to be in charge or important. Not only do kids learn from our unintended behavior modeling, but we can use the knowledge of that in behavior modification to help change their bad behaviors into better ones (even if we were the ones who modeled that bad behavior in the first place!). This form of behavior modification is also an effective way for us to help our children face their fears and get over them without letting them negatively affect their lives.
What is Modeling?
I’m not talking about anything that has to do with the catwalk or designer labels. Behavior modeling as a form of behavior modification is using the influence of a model to develop a behavior. We do this from the get-go with our babies, encouraging them to talk, play peek-a-boo with us, and clap along with us to the baby boogie. Just as we use modeling for fun and engaging activities, we can use modeling to help encourage positive behaviors in our children. You might also hear of modeling as observation learning, imitation, vicarious learning, and social learning.
By observing the patterns of behaviors of others, a child can learn about appropriate models of behaviors. A child might observe someone display compassion and empathy for another in pain, and in turn display those same positive emotional responses in their own situations. Some children with strong fears can reduce or eliminate their fears by repeatedly observing someone else have positive interactions with the feared object or event. Children in school are consistently learning through modeling – if they see someone reprimanded for running in the halls, they don’t have to actually run in the halls to know what the consequence might be. If a friend is teased for wearing a purple fedora, your child learns that purple fedoras aren’t in this year unless you want to be teased as well.
Children model their behaviors after parents, teachers, friends, and even those who they don’t personally know such as celebrities or even a character in a book. Modeling tends to be more powerful when the model is significant to the one observing. Siblings are also powerful models because young children often spend so much time with their siblings that they truly do learn from one another.
How Can I Use Modeling in Behavior Modification With My Child?
Just as with so many other parenting techniques, modeling is most effective when used in conjunction with other approaches, such as positive reinforcement. Studies have shown that children are inclined to model the behavior of adults and people in authority. If you want to find a way to get your child to be more responsible with basic chores, modeling proactive behavior yourself is the first step. If your bedroom is always in disarray it will be difficult to convince your child to keep her own clean. For behaviors that are more challenging, such as a child’s fear of swimming, providing reassuring examples of kids having fun in the water is important. Don’t place any pressures on the situation, just allow your child to observe the safety and enjoyment of a positive situation. Let him play near the shore or edge of the pool, watch siblings or friends having fun, or you simply standing in the water. This is not the time to constantly ask him to join you – you and others are only modeling that swimming is fun for those in the pool – without any pressures to join at that point.
Combine the modeling with other behavior modification approaches, such as positive reinforcement, to most effectively utilize this method. At some point when your child decides to change his behavior or reaction, reinforce it with positive responses. Guide your child’s participation in a reaffirming way without pressures, but also be careful that you create a balance. If you try to hand your son the moon and stars for a small progressive accomplishment, by the time he actually reaches the goal you’ll be out of rewards. Sometimes, too, children react to rewards by stopping progress. Let your child feel the reward in his own behavior – a boost to his self-confidence.
Behavior modification through modeling is a lifelong process we go through as parents. Sometimes we forget the value of our actions and those with whom we surround our children. Modeling is truly a parenting lesson in the company we keep, and that includes the company we give of as ourselves to our children.