Dana Carvey's got nothing on your kid. Anyone who's ever been around children—and hence, embarrassed or dumbfounded by their recall and regurgitation—knows they're born impersonators. Sponges, people often call kids, in the attempt to describe their astounding capacity to absorb and retain the world's information.
With that in mind, how can parents set the best example possible? And what happens when they fall short?
Well, you will. That's OK. But here's the key thing to remember: It's not about the big things, but the little ones, parenting experts say.
You know the expression, "death by a thousand cuts?" asks Madeline Levine, Bay Area psychologist and author of "Teach Your Children Well." Good role modeling shows "integrity by a thousand small examples," she says.
Put another way, "you can't sit your child down at age 15 and say, 'let's talk about values and friendship,'" says Robyn Silverman, a New Jersey-based child and teen development specialist. At that point, you're on to bigger subjects, which will be made much easier to manage if you've built up to them with years of modeling critical qualities, she says.
So, how do you do transmit your values? Through your example, of course, but here's the bonus—explaining why you do what you do, experts say.
Here's how one lesson might go, Silverman says: "You say, 'I made this commitment to go to the PTA meeting, but I'm really tired. I don't want to go. So this is a real hard choice for me, but commitment is really important for me,'" and so on. "They hear your process." Yes, it may feel strange to verbalize each iteration of your decision-making, she says, but doing so lets parents impart a lesson that doesn't sound like a lecture.
Remember, too, that the world is your classroom. Lessons can arise from the conflicts and characters in books, movies and observations about your child's peers, Silverman says. For example, you might latch on to the joy your 4-year-old shows at feeling included by a friend and ask how your family can be more inclusive, she says.
This strategy of explanation and engagement is what psychologist Eileen Kennedy-Moore calls "modeling plus"—essentially, taking role modeling to the next level. That's because simply doing something on its own doesn't always drive the message home to your kids, she says. Want to stress the value of charity? Have your child volunteer with you, she says. If your child is a teenager for whom the thought of being seen with mom or dad is a nonstarter, fine. Reflect on your own values by saying something like this: "No matter how busy I am, I always make time for this, and this is why it matters to me," says Kennedy-Moore, author of "Smart Parenting for Smart Kids." Teens will "shut down fast" if they sense criticism, she says.
[See How to Cope With Criticism.]
Be warned, in any case, Kennedy-Moore says: "Good modeling doesn't guarantee that children will do what we want them to do, but telling children 'do as I say, not as I do' definitely won't work. Kids are quick to notice hypocrisy."
If you're stressing healthy habits, for example, you ought to make time to exercise and eat well, Silverman says. And be sure to model those values whether or not your kids are in plain view. "They're watching you even when you think they're not." Besides, you could be at a store where your child's friend may see you, she says, so you want to "be consistent with your message."
The form of the message, however, changes to reflect your child's age and comprehension, Levine says. Teaching centers on self-interest when children are young and identity when they're teens, she says. So if you want to impress upon young children the value of visiting an elderly relative, you might ask them how they would feel if nobody came to visit.
Parenting, Levine says, is a "30-year plan." For her part, she aimed to transmit empathy, integrity and honesty—the qualities that would make her three sons good parents, partners and citizens of the world.
But those grand ideals were transmitted through the most mundane matters, Levine says. "If you thought that they were asking me what my feelings were, you'd be wrong," she says, with a boys-will-be-boys chuckle. Instead, she might discuss over dinner her annoyance that the dry cleaner didn't have something ready that she wanted to wear on a trip. "You can go off on the cleaner, or you can model the absolutely daily frustration of not always having your needs met." Ideally, you do so with composure.
But if you don't, don't worry—it's what they call a "teachable moment." Use the opportunity to model a sincere apology and make good on righting the wrong, Silverman says. "You have to be accountable."
Ultimately, your child's sensibility isn't only up to you. "From the time they're one month old and want to face out rather than in, they're moving up and away from us, so they will be exposed to a lot of things," Kennedy-Moore says. At the same time, a few key components can help ensure children adopt their parents' values; they hinge on whether a child feels parental warmth and care, considers themselves similar to their parents and believes their parents competently navigate the world.
In short, they, like you, are looking for connection and inspiration.