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Saturday, September 3, 2011

Being a role model: a 24/7 challenge for parents and carers

It's easy to forget that those little eyes are always watching us.  It's even easier to forget that those little ears are always listening to us- especially when children get to the age where they seem to develop selective hearing. (Believe me, selective deafness is about lack of response, not lack of hearing.)

Because I work as a casual at the moment, I've been quite transient in my contact with some groups of children.  This can be a challenge for the children, for the regular staff and for me.  And it also opens up some huge holes in the role modelling by the adults involved in the childcare equation.  Often, adults are downright rude to each other in full view of the children; all that time spent telling the children to be kind to their friends (hmm, you can read what I think about that use of the word 'friends' here), and yet they themselves sometimes treat the other human beings around them with blatant disregard for their feelings and rights.

It seems to me that many of my reflections about those 'holes' also apply to parenting; the way our children's primary carers behave in front of them is crucial to their future behaviour and attitudes. So let's have a look at a few aspects of adult behaviours, through the eyes of the children.

1. How are your manners?

There is absolutely no point requiring the children to use good manners- please, thank you, excuse me and so on- if you as the adult model aren't doing so with the other adults in your life. I would like a dollar for every time I've been told to do a certain job in the room without so much as a please, and with zero acknowledgement when it's done. And I've seen many a room leader barge straight into the middle of a carer's interaction with a child to tell the adult something 'important' without so much as an excuse me.

Being busy is no excuse. You are a role model. Thank your partner, or your assistant, or your casual, when they do something that makes your life easier. If you need something done, ask politely. 'Do as I say, not as I do' has never cut the mustard with kids. If you want them to respect each other, you have to demonstrate that at every level.

It might even make your life better, you know; I bet the atmosphere will improve with the other adults in your world.

2. Don't talk disparagingly about others behind their backs.

If you want your children not to pick on other children and call them names, you'd better make sure you're not doing it yourself.  Where do you think 4-year-olds pick up words like 'idiot', 'f*ckwit' and 'retard'? (Yes, I've heard all of those and more from the mouths of babes.)

If you've got a problem with a child, you talk to that child about it. If you've got a problem with an adult, you talk to that adult about it. If your child is picking up derogatory words, then somewhere down the line an adult has provided a bad model to a child.

3. Don't talk about others without addressing them directly.

One of my least favourite behaviours of parents and carers is the tendency to talk about a child in their presence (again, often quite disparagingly).  If the subject of your conversation is present, please include them in the conversation.

Sadly, I often see room staff doing exactly this to casual staff. For example, 'I'll do such-and-such a job, and (casual) can clean the floor' (all directed to another permanent worker, without so much as looking in the direction of the casual) is just plain rude. Please don't model talking about people without including them in the conversation.

That is dehumanising behaviour, designed to keep another person in a lower place in the hierarchy.  If a group of children consistently do this to a peer, we call it bullying.  Where do you think bullying is learnt? Yep, that's right- from adults.

Yes, children can learn bullying from other children- but somewhere in the chain, a child heard it first from an adult. Please don't be that adult.

4. Give more praise than correction

We all know that the best way to improve a child's behaviour is to find the good and praise it. Yet the adults seem unable to apply this to other adults.  If you want the other adults around you to behave better, work better, have a better attitude, praise the behaviour and work that you want to see and that you find helpful.

I'm a hard worker when I'm on the floor of a childcare centre.  I know that I have more to offer than just sweeping floors and cleaning high chairs, and so I offer it- I write observations, set up interest-based activities and extend play without being asked.  Yet I've often found myself thinking 'why bother?' and dropping my intensity, because the adults around me don't show any acknowledgement of these helpful things- they are focused on the bad.

Yes, of course I sometimes forget things, of course I make the odd mistake, and of course I don't always do things exactly the way the room leader had in mind. I'm human too! But if that's all the adults see, then it's likely that some of the good things will disappear.

And the children are watching. If all they see is one adult criticising another, that is the modelling experience. And that modelling is far more important than most of what is being criticised.

So, do you spend most of your time criticising another adult- your partner, your assistant, your other children? If so, cut it out. You're teaching the ability to erode self-belief.

You can't expect children to learn by telling them. You have to show them.  And that means examining your own behaviour and your attitude to the other adults in your life.


  1. Annie,
    As always I so much admire and appreciate your courage to put yourself out there and tell the truth.

    I am a Waldorf trained teacher of ten years. So much of the (rather esoteric work (in our culture)) that we do is about conveying to parents/community that children in the first seven years learn primarily through imitation. All the talking in the world will get you 'lack of response' and your article on being a criticized parent/caregiver was very worthwhile reflection! Children challenge us to grow- Perhaps not to be better more enlightened human beings with one another, but the opportunity to parent and care for a loved one renews hope that these ways are an ideal worth striving for. Thank you so much, again, for spelling it out in a language we are more accustomed to understanding ♥

  2. Thanks, Danielle. I often wish for a world where people were less scared of truthfulness and the discomfort it can cause. It's only through seeing truths about ourselves that we can grow as people and become better at caring for smaller people.

  3. Thanks. Such awesome ideas. This happened about a month ago. My son was walking through a crowded room, saying nothing. I reminded him to say "excuse me" when I wondered if I said that enough. I am shy and I bet I don't. I have made a real effort to say that more rather than just scoot past people and I have noticed he says it more now too.

  4. Good post and reminder to adults. I'm guilty of getting busy, overwhelmed, and maybe complaining about someone in ear shot of my children. A positive well-mannered attitude is absolutely what I want for myself and my children. I plan to try a little harder.
    It's nice to know how aware you are of your attitudes and behaivor in front of the children in your care. Let's hope you can influence a few adults around you. If not, know that you are making a HUGE difference in the lives of the children around you.


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