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Do You Model Behavior Through “Do As I Do” or “Do As I Say”?

Lori Freson


When it comes to raising children, everyone has their own style of parenting. I think what we all share in common is the desire to raise well-behaved, kind, thoughtful and independent human beings. We all strive to have kids that follow directions, do well in school, help with chores and other responsibilities, and treat others appropriately. What we sometimes forget, though, is that these traits take years and years to cultivate, and many of us have not even mastered all of them ourselves. Is it possible that you expect too much from your children?

I often find that the very things adults have trouble mastering are the things we expect our children to do better. If you really stop and think about this, it makes no sense. How on earth should a child know how handle something better than his own parents can? Also, in our efforts to be good parents and guide our children, we often miss the mark and send the exact opposite message that we are striving to send. Let me give you some examples here.

Your child is arguing with his sibling over a toy. He gets very angry and calls him a name and hits him. In your efforts to rectify the situation and teach your child that it’s wrong to call people names and physically hurt others, you proceed to tell him he is being bad and spank him. You have now literally just done the exact thing you’re trying to teach him not to do. What you really want to teach him is that it is okay to be angry or frustrated, but that it has to be communicated with words only, and the words must be appropriate. In actuality, what you’ve done, is shown by example that when you get angry, it’s okay to call people names and hit them. Your child will do exactly what you show them. The concept of ‘Do as I say, not as I do’ never works.

Another pretty common example is how you control your own emotions. We all have this expectation that our young children ought to be able to control their emotions at all times. We wish for no tantrums from our toddlers, and no door slamming or profanity from our teenagers. But when you really stop and look at yourself, how well do you this? Most of us get angry when a bad driver cuts us off on the road, and we end up yelling some profanity at them, even though they can’t hear us. When the kids aren’t doing what we’ve asked of them, we often yell at them. And most of us have slammed a door, rolled our eyes, or any number of other inappropriate reactions to our own feelings.

Furthermore, the ways we interact with our spouses or partners is also setting an example to our children for how to treat others. When you and your spouse disagree, does it happen kindly, with sensitivity and kindness? Or is there yelling and name-calling? Do you storm out of the room and slam the door, or give the silent treatment? Do you complain to the children about your spouse? All of these things are things you would not want your child to do if they were frustrated or angry. You expect them to stay calm and not act out, to use their words, yet you are not always even capable of doing this yourself.

Since most adults have these unrealistic expectations for our children, and are guilty of much of the above examples, let me offer some suggestions for how to do better.

  1. When your kids are fighting, before you intervene, ask yourself what is the goal? Is the goal just to end the fight, with no regard for the messages you are sending or future behavior? Or is the goal to teach your children a better way to fight? Be very mindful of how you intervene. It is often best to remove the toy they are fighting over, separate them from one another, and then calmly discuss what went wrong and how they can do better next time. For example, “I see you got very angry when Johnny took your toy. What can you say to Johnny when he takes your toy?”
  2. Check your anger and resentment. Ask yourself if you can think of times when you got angry, such as in the car, and choose how you’re going to react to your own emotions in the future. Are you going to yell profanity or slam doors and shout at your kids? We tell our children to use their words, but most of us haven’t really mastered that. It is time to master it. It would serve you and your children better if you learned to express yourself appropriately with your words, just as we ask of our children An example would be, “I am very angry that I asked you to set the table, but you never did it. Next time, please do what I have asked.”
  3. Learn how to fight fair with your spouse. I’m certainly not saying to never fight, and I’m not even saying not to do it in front of the children. But learn how to disagree is a respectful way by using kind words to express your thoughts and feelings. Do not yell and call each other names and walk away or give the silent treatment. Never tell your children something negative about your partner, such as “Your dad is such a slob. He can’t even pick up his own clothes.” This teaches them that it is okay to talk badly about others behind their backs, and also puts them in the middle. Rather, they should hear things like, “I hear what you’re saying, but I have a different perspective about that. Let’s listen to each other and compromise.”

The most important thing you can remember is that you need to have realistic expectations of your children. Do not expect them to be more of an expert at managing their feelings and problems than you are. Teach them by example, every chance you get, so that you will eventually produce adults that have all of the wonderful qualities you wish for them.

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Lori Freson

Lori Freson is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Southern California. She has been working in the mental health field since 1997, and has been a licensed therapist since 2002. Lori currently works in her own thriving private practice in Encino and Sherman Oaks, where she serves the San Fernando Valley and Los Angeles areas.