Charles Barkley is notorious for saying he is not a role model. While this provided for an interesting campaign, and has the best intentions (implying parents should be a child’s primary role models, not athletes) it’s still a bit flawed. (Sorry, Chuck.) The truth is, any adult in view of a child, is to some degree a role model. I mean, break down the word. A role model is someone who demonstrates how a role is filled. They are modeling behavior. This is contingent upon a child being able to observe you, not upon your willingness or objection to being considered such. Children are watching all around them and picking up cues on how to navigate social situations. They are looking for social behavior to emulate as references for navigating their own social situations.
They watch the clerk at the grocery store and file that away in the “How to Be the Clerk” part of their brains. They observe the bus driver as an example of how to fill the bus driver role. They see their grandparents filling the grandparent role. And yes, back in the day, children even watched Charles Barkley and filed him into a role as well. As they watch adult behavior, children are picking up cues for social behavior, social roles, and social speech. They note how Mom takes care of Sister Sue, and next thing you know, they’re imitating that with a doll in a dramatic play situation, internalizing and making sense of what they’ve observed. As the observations are refined and assimilated, parts begin to appear in their own behavior, even outside of play situations. As parents and teachers, we’ve probably all had the experience of hearing one of our children lecture another child, a doll, or even ourselves, using the same tone and words (though sometimes in exaggerated caricature) that we have used ourselves. They are constantly looking to adults and even peers for social examples. It’s a simple truth for better or for worse. Let’s talk about the better part.
One part Sir Charles did get right, is that loving relationships can increase the potency of a role model’s influence. Parents and teachers can be extremely influential role models. As we become cognizant of this, we can use our examples to shape and scaffold positive social behavior in the children we love and teach. Here’s an example. I was training a group of teachers recently, when one shared that she had spilled some milk during snack time with the children earlier that day. She said the children were absolutely astonished! “Teacher! You spilled the milk!” Their response displayed utter disequilibrium. First of all, teachers are perfect, and don’t spill, right? And secondly, this teacher was completely and perfectly calm about it. Another confusing response in the view a young child who might panic or have a meltdown during such a calamity. This teacher simply calmly said, “I did spill the milk. Teachers make mistakes too. How do you think we could clean it up?” A simple incident, but a huge learning tool as well. Through her mindful, positive modeling, this teacher taught: 1) It’s OK to make mistakes. 2) You can stay calm when you’re disappointed. 3) We can fix our problems. 4) Because of observing 1-3 with this teacher, a child knows it’s safe to take a risk with this teacher.
If you are working with a difficult behavior in a child, be sure to model the behavior you would like to see. For example, if the child is having tantrums, model being very calm. Particularly when the child is having a meltdown! If the child is being aggressive, be sure you are not responding with aggression yourself. If you have a shouter, model using a soft voice.
Take note of your own behavior. Is it being reflected in the children you love and teach? Is it behavior you would want reflected? As one test, imagine if a child spoke to you the way you speak to him or around him. How would you feel? If you’re uncomfortable, reconsider your own behavior. Think also of the challenging behaviors you’re trying to modify in a child. Can you teach through modeling, either explicitly (as in role playing) or implicitly in your every day encounters with the child?
There’s a quote (though I don’t know the source) that states, “Your actions are so loud that I can’t hear your words.” This is so true with young children. Their language centers are still developing, so some of what we say may not always get through. But they are also keen observers; what we do will almost always be noted. These little ones can be like mirrors in a fun house. We see our own motions and actions but in another form in front of us. Make sure your own behavior is such that you would be OK seeing it again in the children around you!
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Top photo by ugaldew.