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The Problem with ‘Do As I Say and Not As I Do’

By Ben Barer, LCSW-C

Remember that old saying, “Do as I say, not as I do”? Well, you may have already figured out that it doesn’t really work with kids. As adults, we forget that children are constantly watching, listening and taking note of our daily struggles, triumphs and misfortunes. Children are more observant than we sometimes realize, and they often internalize what they are experiencing. They will then use what they experienced and react in a very similar manner when faced with similar situations. Children are also able to tell when adults are anxious, worried, and even scared, by watching how we react to different scenarios.

When children mimic adult behavior, there can be good and bad ramifications.  On the positive side:

  1. Children can learn how to react in a healthy manner when faced with situations that have the potential to increase anxiety.
  2. Children and parents can discuss appropriate responses and possible solutions to problems.
  3. Children can learn how to show affection and empathy when they observe parents and adults acting in this manner.

The negatives can include:

  1. Children can learn that screaming, yelling and being rude is the way to get what you want.
  2. Children can pick up on negative social behavior and repeat it around their peers.

So, what can parents do to make sure that children pick up our good habits and not our bad ones?

  • Be aware of how you handle certain situations.  For example, if you need to make a phone call to the cable company regarding the monthly bill and there is a possibility that things might get “heated” during that conversation, make sure the children are not around to hear it. Plan a time that they will be out of the house or make the phone call where there will be privacy.  The idea is not to necessarily shelter your children from the realities of daily life, but rather to wait until they are ready before exposing them to certain situations.
  • Answer all their questions.  Children have great memories and can make connections between something they witnessed months ago and a current happening.  Therefore, if a child experiences an event that could be either traumatic or stressful, make sure to answer any questions they might have about that situation and help them process it until they are satisfied. It is possible that they might bring it up again at some point in the future, which means that something triggered that memory. Instead of shutting them down by saying that this was already explained, try to figure out where that trigger came from and how it can be avoided for the future.
  • Know your child.  Every child is different.  One might get upset or anxious about a particular situation, while another could not care less about it. Staying in tune with your child can help you understand what he or she should be able to handle at different stages of life.
  • Be age appropriate. Certain conversations that can take place in front of a two or three year old child, cannot take place in front of a four or five year old as he or she may understand what is being said. Err on the side of caution.

It’s important to remember that we are all human.  There will be times when you regret your actions or say something you wish you hadn’t said in front of your child.  Instead of beating yourself up about it, turn these occasions into teachable moments, explaining to your child that you didn’t handle the situation the best way that you could have.  Share what you regret doing, why you are sorry, and what you could do better in the future.

For all those other times when you act as an appropriate role model for children and adolescents, know that they will learn from those actions, imitate those behaviors, and that can set them on the path to becoming happy, healthy, and successful people.


Because children don’t come with an instruction manual, JCS offers a variety of programs, services, education and support for parents and families with children of all ages. Click here or call 410-466-9200 to learn more.

Ben Barer, LCSW-C is a therapist for JCS.

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