November 11th, 2010

80% of parenting is modelling

Child using a phone

80% of parenting is modelling. It’s a really scary thought for most parents that eighty per cent of the teaching we do, eighty percent of the learning our children get in the family, most of what they imbibe and take on as values comes from them watching what we model and copying us! There may be a handful of parents who are relaxed about this having a clean conscience about their language, their attitudes, their manners and other behaviours. But for many of us this is a really pressurising idea. Especially if you consider all the possible areas our children may be subconsciously absorbing values that we didn’t intend to pass on to them.

When my children were little I despaired of them ever learning what I regarded as ‘nice’ table manners because I thought my husband, not me, was such a poor role model in this area. (Lovely as he was and is in many other ways.) But there were so many other areas where I wasn’t remotely aware that I was modelling behaviours. For example what attitudes do we model? When something is hard do we give up? I know if I have an IT issue or I reach the tiniest obstacle with something electronic I’ll wait till my husband can deal with it. (I told you he was nice). What am I teaching my kids – that there are areas that are completely beyond my expertise and I’m not going to try to improve but instead I’ll avoid dealing with those issues?

Still on the subject of attitudes what do you do when you get a parking ticket? (A very common occurrence in Wandsworth where I live.) Do you berate yourself for being such a fool for not putting enough money in the parking meter; do you say Daddy will be so cross that’s the third one this month; do you say don’t tell Daddy? If so what are we modelling for our children about dealing with mistakes? Are we teaching them that mistakes diminish us rather than being an opportunity for learning and should be covered up?

What about language? Have you ever heard your child on the phone sounding exactly like you? When I rang my five year old nephew recently he was very chatty and said “and how’s the family” in tones that sounded just like his mother! These are the positives of course. But how many of us emit an expletive or two in the hearing of our children and then get cross with them for doing the same? How do we handle our feelings? When I’m sad do I mooch around with a hang dog expression listlessly, sighing and finding it hard to get on with life. When I’m angry do I put others down or criticise or resort to sarcasm? What do I do when my self esteem is low? Do I do something to boost it or give up and withdraw? When I’m fed up with my kids do I tell them how rotten they are? If my children are fighting with each other do I smack the one I see as the perpetrator? What does smacking model? Is it telling my children that when they’re adults they too will be able to use their power to hurt but they’re not allowed to hit their brother now? When someone has upset me do I speak rationally to the person concerned or do I bottle up my feelings or explode? Do they see you resolving conflict well? Do they know you’ve made up with your partner after a fight and do they learn how you resolved things?

If you’re feeling a bit sick by now keep reading as it gets better.

If I want my children to develop good social skills what am I modelling around that? Do we all eat together at the table having conversations? Do they see me with my friends? Do they hear me talking positively about friends and family or do they get a litany of complaints? How you talk about your parents is how they’ll talk about you in adulthood!

What about lifestyle? We all know how important it is to encourage our children to eat well and take exercise and get enough sleep but what do they see us doing in these areas? Is your breakfast a cup of strong coffee and do they hear that you were up half the night? Do you exercise with your kids or on your own where there don’t see it? How do you talk to your kids about your own body shape and that of others? Do you moan about your own ‘deficiencies’ or make fun of others?

Do your kids ever see you reading? Do you discuss the contents of your book with them?

And what about the things that will affect them in the future? What do they see your work/life balance as?

I said it would get better. The good news is that as soon as our awareness is raised about these issues we’ve already taken a step forward. We start to think about what we do in front of the children. One of the most useful aspects of the parenting course I took 13 years ago was spending time each week working out what values I wanted to pass on to my children. At The Parent Practice we focus on this a lot.

Sometimes it’s just a case of making our children aware of the good things we’re doing that we want them to learn from such as kindnesses that we wouldn’t normally broadcast but we need to articulate to our children so that they can learn from it. When playing games with children we recommend you articulate your thought processes like this: oh no I’ve drawn a bad card! Never mind. I won’t make a fuss. Maybe I’ll get a good one next hand. Yes you will feel like a dork but your children are learning good lessons from this.

Sometimes of course it means curbing our bad habits or at least being conscious of not parading them in front of the children. Knowing the following facts about smoking (along with all the other ones you already know) may give you a bit extra incentive to give up. Children of parents who smoke:

  • Are twice as likely to take up smoking.
  • Assume that cigarette smoking is an acceptable way to handle stress and boredom. They see you do it all the time.
  • Develop a positive attitude toward smoking.
  • Are more tolerant of the unpleasant effects of cigarette smoke, such as odours, stained teeth and small burns on the carpet and furniture.


Once we’re aware of the influence we have we can consciously set out to influence our children. Michael Grinder, communications expert, says “The power of influence is greater than the influence of power”.  Sometimes our children are not copying the things we’d like them to. And for that there is the other 20% of parenting – we need some positive and effective parenting tools like using rules constructively, setting things up so that our children are likely to behave well, motivating them to do the right thing, understanding the causes of behaviour and responding effectively when they don’t. Sometimes it doesn’t seem as if our children are learning anything in the moment but it may be years later that your children show they have taken on your values. For the record my kids’ table manners are fine now.

Melissa Hood

Posted in: Modelling , Smoking





Quick links

The Parent Practice GuideJoin Us Now!

Be kept informed about events, offers and top tips for parents. And get a FREE parenting guide.

Join Now


68 Thurleigh Road
London SW12 8UD

Phone: 0208 673 3444