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How to Teach Your Child by Example

Topic Overview

Teaching your child by example isn't about being a perfect parent. True, it's about showing, or modelling, healthy choices and good behaviour. But it's also about showing your child how to handle mistakes and recover from bad choices.

How can you be a good role model for your child?

First, take a minute to think about the good examples you set for your child every day. And give yourself credit for bad habits that you've already changed to good ones for your child's benefit.

Now, ask yourself a few questions.

  • What kind of person do I want my child to become?
  • What good things are easy for me to teach my child by example? These are qualities and behaviours that are natural and easy for you.
  • What things are hard for me to teach by example? These are things like not wanting your child to start smoking even though you smoke, or wanting your child to learn to stay calm even though you tend to lose your temper.

Challenge yourself

  • Think of one behaviour that you don't want your child to learn from you.
  • Think about small steps you can take that would help you change this behaviour. Make the change a priority, and get help if you need it.
  • If you slip up, don't be hard on yourself. Learn from your mistake. Figure out how to avoid that slip-up next time. Then move on with your plan to change your behaviour.
  • Be kind to yourself. It can be tough to set a good example.
  • Think to yourself, "This is what I want my child to learn from me," if it helps you stay focused on why this change is important to you.

How can you help your child learn from your mistakes?

It's easy to help a child learn from his or her own mistakes with questions like, "What didn't work this time? How can you do it differently next time?"

What about helping your child learn from your mistakes? That's harder, isn't it? It means drawing attention to your flaws and missteps.

But using your mistakes as a learning tool helps both you and your child. And it helps build your child's respect for you over time.

Here's an example: Let's say that you have a habit of yelling, which you don't want your child to do. So you set the goal of not yelling. Then you make a plan for how you'll handle those tough moments when you're angry or frustrated. This is not easy to do all at once, and you make some mistakes along the way. But you use those mistakes to teach your child a better way. Here are some tools for doing that.

  • Show your work. At a time when you would normally yell, you can follow your plan to do something different. Maybe you say something out loud like, "I'm mad, but I don't want to yell. So I'm going to take a break and calm down." Maybe then you step away and calm yourself with a breathing exercise.
  • Teach apology. When you do slip up and yell, say that you're sorry—even if it's later, when things have calmed down. Saying that you're sorry, or giving an apology, makes it clear that yelling is not okay. And it shows that you're thinking about how your actions affect others, which is another good thing to teach your child.
  • Talk or role-play. Depending on your child's age, you can play-act situations with toys, talk about real-life behaviour, or role-play different situations like, "What are the worst and best ways to show you're angry?" or "How does it make you feel when I yell?" Talking and play-acting give your child permission to express feelings. And they give you a chance to teach your child by example.

For a serious problem like depression or substance use disorder, you can tell your child the basics—that you need help from other adults and that you may need treatment and time to get well and change. Keep it simple. Tell your child that you want to help him or her avoid having the same problem.

What about other role models?

You may have heard the saying "It takes a village to raise a child." There's some truth in that. As much as you want to set a good example for handling life's many choices, you can't do it all. Fortunately, the world is rich with people your child can learn from. These include:

  • People you choose to be your child's role models. Some of them may be a lot like you. You can also look for role models who can show your child things that you can't.
  • People your child chooses as role models. You can learn about your child's role models by talking with, watching, and listening to your child. These role models may include celebrities and movie and book characters. They can also be family, friends, teachers, and people your child reads about in social media.

Be your child's guide

As your child gets older, you can't choose or control the many types of role models in your child's life. But you can help your child learn from these role models' successes and mistakes. Talk about those successes and mistakes. If it feels right, play-act them. With your child, "rewrite" others' mistakes with better choices.

Use this list to start conversations with your child. To make it like a game, you might write these and other questions on cards ahead of time.

  • Who is a favourite person in your life, and what do you most admire about him or her? How do you want to be like that person?
  • Think of a person you know who is good to other people. What words come to mind when you think of this person? How does this person make you feel? How could you do the same things?
  • Think of a movie, TV, or video game character that you would not want to be around in real life. Why not? What does that person do or say that bothers you and makes you not want to be like that person?
  • What's the best way that you've seen two people argue? What's the worst? What can we learn from them?
  • From the last movie you saw, think of a character you liked best. What did he or she do that you can see yourself doing?
  • Think of a time when you didn't get what you wanted. How did it make you feel? Now play-act how a small child would show those feelings. And then show how a grown-up you trust would handle the same feelings.
  • Think of a bad behaviour you've seen lately. Talk about it. Maybe act it out. What happened? Now rewrite the story.
    • How could that person make better choices next time?
    • How would you handle that person's bad behaviour in a different way?
    • How could things turn out better next time?

If your child is a preteen or teen, you can talk about how other people handle things like smoking, peer pressure, sexuality, driving, and social media. Help your child discover the flaws, rather than naming them yourself. Ask questions like, "What went wrong there? What could make it turn out better if this happened again?"

Be on the lookout for examples of good and bad behaviour, both in real life and in the media. There are endless options for what you can talk about with your child.


Current as of:
February 10, 2021

Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Anne C. Poinier MD - Internal Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Timothy R. Stockwell PhD
Louis Pellegrino MD - Developmental Pediatrics