Modeling Behavior

Modeling Behavior

Not like Kate Moss. Forget the catwalks and the 4 inch heels. Although if that’s your thing, public school  breezeways and scandalous outfits serve a similar purpose.

But wait, stop! I’m veering way off topic. Stream-of-consciousness blogging, sorry. No, what I meant to be talking about was modeling safe, responsible, respectful behavior.

I’ll start with Show Don’t Tell. This is a huge deal in novel writing. If you show something happening, it resonates much more deeply. If you merely tell, that’s journalism. Just the facts, with no emotion, and hence much less of an impact. Dressing, moving and especially slouching Goth are much more impressive moves than merely talking Goth. There, I’ve tied that in neatly, eh?

There’s a somewhat similar guideline in Dreikersian child guidance – tell only once, then show you mean it through action.

If you say “we’re leaving now” that might mean something. But if you pick up your child and walk out the door there’s no room for confusion. So tell once, and if they don’t get it in gear go pick them up and leave.

Home of Hope Orphanage, Tibet

Home of Hope Orphanage, Tibet

Whatever you do, don’t nag. Nobody likes it, and I’m speaking for everybody when I say that. “How many times do I have to tell you…” is evidence that you’re a little dense yourself, right up there those who implore kids to “listen to my words.” If they’re ignoring your words – you’d best use something more impressive. At least different words that explain more effectively. But even better, replace words with action.

If you say “time to pick up the toys” it might mean something. If you turn off the TV, throw open the toy box and start tossing toys in, that makes it much clearer that you mean what you say.

In a similar vein, positive or moral behavior is best conveyed on multiple levels. It’s fine to spell it out, but match your words with your actions. Show how you put your thinking into practice. If you don’t want your daughter to be selfish, let her see you being generous. If you don’t want your child to be duplicitous, be a model of honesty. Hectoring, shaming or scolding rarely touch hearts. Lectures on morality will be quickly tuned out. Kids’ll watch your lips move if they must, but their minds will be elsewhere, thinking about swimming, or smoking dope, or gaining revenge. True teaching will be through what you do, the way you live your life, and how you make kids feel.

It’s curious that modeling behavior teaches effectively regardless of whether your actions are laudable and inspiring, despicable and hypocritical, or even intentional or unintended. You don’t get to choose which of your actions are going to make an impression. Talk up a storm in front of a toddler and your words will blow right by, but utter one cuss word and they’ll pick it right up. In any case, for better or worse, children will notice your behavior and either emulate it, absorbing it through osmosis, or they’ll rise above it, vowing to never follow in your path.

It’s hope-enhancing to realize that we don’t necessarily get sucked into adopting the worst behaviors. The actor Patrick Stewart, of Star Trek fame, grew up with a physically abusive father. Mr. Stewart learned from the experience that such behavior was intolerable. He now speaks forcefully against violence toward women or children, and he modeled honorable behavior for years through his television identity as Captain Piccard. My kids dressed like him for years.

Gandhi said “be the change you want to see in the world.” Good advice, but words only carry you so far. For many around the world, it was his behavior that put him over the top as an inspiration. The same was true for Martin Luther King, Jr. Both men were inspirational speakers, but their words became infinitely more powerful when followed up with a march through Birmingham to protest discrimination, and a 24-day trek to gather salt from the edge of the sea. There’s nothing quite as impactful as walking the walk. In whatever role you play with kids – teacher, mentor, hall monitor, cafeteria lady – try to hold on to this important truth: that what you do is at least as powerful as what you say, and how you make kids feel. If you’re hoping they’ll develop as responsible and respectful human beings, do your best to show them the way.

[The folks at NAPCAN illustrated this brilliantly with a short video, Children See, Children Do!

I don’t mean to discount the importance of what you say. If your words give them hope and encouragement, you’re giving them something precious; if your words are belittling or fear inducing, they’re less likely to be helpful in the long run.

And finally what you show and what you say are only part of what you have to offer, so don’t forget the third big element of your performance: don’t forget to listen. We get busy in school, with deadlines and hordes of kids to deal with, but any moment when we stop long enough to make eye contact and to genuinely listen holds the potential for touching someone at the deepest level.

We may not recognize the power in our actions at the time, but in the long run a child’s self-worth can be profoundly impacted. Try not to let such opportunities slip away.

Tod Schneider
Written by Tod Schneider

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