We teach our kids to copy others from the beginning, and that can be a good thing. Modeling behaviors is how they learn to hold a spoon, play with a toy, and treat other people. We took our four-year-old granddaughter to her soccer game the other day. The entire coaching strategy was to model the teammate who had two older brothers, who had taught the game to him. The score confirmed the coach’s strategy was successful.
I wonder how much of our accumulated knowledge came from learning to copy someone else. I was an elementary education major, and I took a lot of college courses to prepare. None of the classwork was as important to my education as the student-teaching semester. I learned how to handle a classroom and teach by watching the experienced teachers, whom I then tried to copy. Most parents look to parents of older kids who seem to have “turned out” and try to copy some of their discipline patterns or parenting tactics. The whole “it takes a village” concept is a pretty good idea.
If human beings learn from copying others, then how do we teach our kids to copy the best examples? And, how do we do that without teaching them to constantly compare themselves to other people? It is a challenge, but it is possible.
This is a technique that teachers are taught that works well for parenting too. We all know the kids who were labeled “teacher’s pets.” That is the tricky part of this type of encouragement. Teachers were taught not to play favorites, even though we all had some. We were taught that kids have a natural tendency to want to please. That tendency is the open door to teaching a lot of important lessons. Here are some of the techniques teachers use to encourage good behavior:
Praise the goal, not the behavior.
Example: I didn’t say to the class, “Wow! Cathy is really nice.” Instead, I would say to Cathy, loud enough for others to hear, “Wow! You really know how to be a good friend.”
I used this same technique parenting my boys. If Ryan was playing nicely with Craig, I would say, “Ryan, you sure are a good big brother.” If Craig was picking up his toys, I would say, “Craig, you sure are a good helper.” Praise the goal and kids will learn what the goals should be.
Model the behavior that kids are supposed to copy.
This is the exact opposite of “Do what I say, not what I do.” Kids are almost always going to do what parents do. If Mom and Dad treat each other kindly, kids will treat each other kindly too. Example: Tell your kids how lucky you are that Mom or Dad is such a big help to you when you are working together on a project or household chore. Say, “It sure is easier when Mom helps me.” Or, “I had so much more fun planting these flowers with Dad’s help.”
If they hear you complain about your spouse, you give them permission to complain about each other. If you have modeled the opposite, you have permission to turn your child’s complaint around by saying, “Well, maybe you need to treat your sister kindly so she will want to treat you kindly too.”
Praise qualities and character rather than acts and abilities.
This is especially true for our older kids. We cheer on the football player who makes all the big plays, and we praise his ability to help the team win. That’s normal, but it’s probably a good idea to follow that praise with the statement, “I hope he is a good person too,” or, “I hope he works as hard at his spiritual strength as he does his physical strength.” Everyone recognizes a person who is attractive on the outside, but it is important to be most impressed with the person they are on the inside.
Parents can send some mixed messages through what they encourage and praise. If we set the bar a little higher, our kids will probably copy and achieve those loftier goals. The world measures our kids by test scores, athletic achievements, and the number of friends they have or the parties they are invited to attend.
We can set the bar a little higher:
- Teach them it isn’t about the number of friends they have; it is the friend they are that matters. How are Mom and Dad modeling that goal by being a friend to others?
- It isn’t the ability to be good at everything. It’s having a great passion to be excellent at some things. Kids know Mom and Dad aren’t good at everything. Mom and Dad need to give their kids that same grace.
- Kids will learn to be impressed with the things that impress their parents. Who and what do Mom and Dad praise in their conversations with each other? Is it a new car or a kind character? Is it a job promotion or an act of generosity? Are people’s achievements praised or is their faith commitment most impressive?
Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). The most important thing for your children to learn to copy is the love of Christ. If that is a parent’s first and highest priority, chances are, you will raise some wonderful kids!
Your kids are going to copy others. Encourage them to copy the Christ in others and you have given them a perfect goal for the rest of their lives.