Natalie Frank has a Ph.D. in Clinical psychology. She specializes in Pediatric Psychology and Behavioral Medicine.
It has been suggested that parents don’t raise children; they raise adults. In other words, what they teach their children should be aimed at establishing healthy habits that help them succeed in their careers, in their relationships, and in life. You may feel the best way to communicate the behaviors that lead to being well-adjusted and kind to others is through clearly explaining and discussing these values. But the most effective way to get children to adopt specific habits and ideals is through demonstration.
Children can learn and adopt prosocial adaptive behaviors through observational learning. When they watch others cooperate, share, take turns, and demonstrate altruism, this can encourage them to behave similarly.
Children Mimic What They See
Children are always observing what their parents do. They see how you handle stress. They watch how you treat other people and observe how you deal with your feelings. They soak up all that information even when you don’t think they are paying attention. And they will imitate what they see parents doing from a very young age. In fact, this tendency is inborn. If you don’t believe this, stick your tongue out at a newborn and watch them return the favor. By about four months they will mimic gestures and facial expressions.
Research suggests that infants may actually be hard-wired to imitate what they see adults do. When they observe an adult doing something wrong, they will continue to imitate this behavior even when they are instructed not to. This process of over imitation can make it more difficult for the child to learn how to do it correctly even as they get older and gain better cognitive abilities.
The good news is that children will also over imitate positive behaviors. It has been shown that children can learn and adopt prosocial adaptive behaviors through observational learning. When children observe how to display empathy, take others perspectives and cope with emotions and imitate them, these types of behaviors can be hard to extinguish even in the face of negative peer pressure.
How to Raise a Caring, Well-Adjusted Child
In order to have children who are empathic and moral, they have to be raised this way. The first thing that you should make sure of is that, as a parent, you are concerned about whether your child is kind to others. In one study, 80 percent of the children interviewed said that their parents were more concerned with their achievement rather than whether they cared about others.
Sometimes the message given to children is that being a caring person isn’t valued while academic achievement is. If this is the case, then empathy and compassion aren’t things they will try to emulate. They are also less likely to notice these behaviors in others as they grow up because they weren’t reinforced.
In order to raise compassionate children, there are some simple strategies you can use:
- Make Caring a Priority—Show your children that being empathic and kind to others is a priority in your family. It’s not enough to hold children responsible for acting in an ethical manner. Demonstrate behaviors such as honoring commitments, doing the right thing even when it’s hard or inconvenient, balancing your needs with the needs of others, standing up for fairness, and being respectful of others. When children see parents acting in these ways they are more likely to adopt similar behaviors, even if doing so doesn’t always make them happy, or their peers aren’t acting in a similar manner.
- Be Deliberate About Choosing Your Child’s Environment—Your child won’t be with you 24 hours a day, especially as they get older. Do what you can to make sure children are surrounded with positive role models. Meet the parents of friends whose houses they might visit. This will also provide consistent experiences and decrease confusion about what you expect from them.
- Make Kind Acts a Part of Your Household—Set up cues to help your child remember to be kind without you needing to tell them exactly what to do. For example, keep a box by the door to their room where they can put toys they have outgrown or don’t want to play with anymore. Consider setting the rule that before they get a new toy they have to leave an old one in the box. Then decide with your child what charity the used toys should go to. If possible, let the child actually give the toys to whoever you decide should be the recipient. This will further reinforce the ideals of kindness from the positive regard they experience when giving the toys to someone else.
- Share Stories About Caring Children—When you come across a story about a child who has done something that displays caring, show it to your child. If it is in a newspaper or magazine, cut it out and put it somewhere they can see it.
- Focus on Caring Behavior in Others—Often we pay attention to children when they are behaving in a way that we find unacceptable. Being positive is far more effective than being negative. If your child is displaying uncaring behavior and there are other children around, try to find a child who is demonstrating positive behaviors and make a point of attending to and reinforcing that child. Continue to reinforce others while ignoring your child’s negative behavior until they start to imitate the behavior you want. Make sure to strongly reinforce them.
- Teach an Outward Perspective—When asking your child questions about their day, make sure at least half of them are about their friends and other children. This will help them develop perspective taking, encourage their understanding that the world isn’t just about them and train them to take other people’s needs into concern.
- Make Caring a Family Affair—Set up opportunities for the entire family to take part in helping others whether it’s through your religious institution, you child’s school, a community center or homeless shelter.
- Teach Stress Management and Emotional Control Techniques—When children experience strong negative emotions this can prevent them from taking other people into consideration. Children aren’t born knowing how to regulate their own emotions. Teach them how to use deep breathing, counting to ten, distraction, basic strategies for relaxing major muscle groups by tensing them then relaxing them one by one, or other strategies to help manage stress and negative emotions
Be Careful About Accidentally Modeling Behavior You Don’t Want Your Child to Adopt
Just because a parent knows what they value and how to demonstrate it, doesn’t mean they do so a hundred percent of the time. No one is perfect and we all do things we don’t want to see imitated in children. Some common examples of this are:
- Parents instructing their children to treat everyone with respect, while frequently making critical comments about other people behind their backs.
- Divorced parents constantly arguing about decisions, while expecting their children to get along with each other without fighting.
- A father telling his son to be kind to others despite yelling at sales clerks when they refuse to take back items he wants to return past the stated time for refunds. Or alternately, a parent yelling at a waitress for a steak that in more done than he ordered despite the fact the server had nothing to do with cooking it.
- A mother telling her children to always be generous and to share what they have, but who never donates to charity or agrees to volunteer for school functions when asked.
- A parent telling their child that it is important to take responsibility for their behavior and mistakes, who yells at a receptionist for making a scheduling error when it was the parent who forgot the appointment.
There are countless other examples of how parents might fail to behave the way they have instructed their child to act. While this is normal, adopting the rule, “Do as I say not as I do,” is not the best way to handle these inconsistencies.
When catching yourself in such a discrepancy, make sure to sit down with your child and explain that what you did was not the best way to handle it and what a better option would have been. Then verbally commit to working on better demonstrating that ideal and make a point of demonstrating it regularly. This will teach your child that while it is normal to make mistakes, they should hold themselves accountable and work on acting differently in the future.
You may believe that your child didn’t notice something you did because as the days go by you don’t see them imitating you. Watching a specific behavior doesn’t necessarily mean a child will perform the behavior immediately. However, even if they don’t behave in a certain way, remember that they are still absorbing new knowledge which they may just tuck away until further down the road. Or perhaps they won’t actually demonstrate the behavior, but what they have observed can still alter their perceptions of right and wrong.
Children also learn about the consequences of behavior by observing your interactions with other adults and children. They may either become fearful of certain repercussions, or come to expect rewards for types of bad behavior (e.g. tantruming in grocery store being rewarded with a candy bar to convince them to quiet down).
They may also act out behavior that they have learned from direct experience or observing you, that they then act out with their peers in an inappropriate manner. This is particularly likely when they don’t have other ways of regulating their emotions. For example, a child who is teased or made fun of by other children may use the way you reprimand them to try to deal with this situation when they become overwhelmed by emotions and don’t know what else to do.
Parents want the best for their children. They want them to be happy, healthy, successful and to be prepared for whatever life throws at them. To achieve these aims, parents often search for the best advice to give to their children. However, the best way to instill positive behaviors and habits is through demonstrating the ideals you want to pass on. Children look up to their parents and other important adults in their lives, and they will automatically take on what they have observed as they grow up.
© 2019 Natalie Frank