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What Parents Must Teach Their Children

How's Your Example?

Because punishment is such an ineffective and inefficient teaching tool, you want to develop something better suited to accomplishing your child-rearing goals. Teaching by example is a far more effective approach. But it's not easy: You have to put your own behavior under close scrutiny to make certain that you're setting the proper example for your child. Here's why:

  • It is very difficult to teach a child not to be prejudiced if you make derogatory comments about all types of people who are different from you.
  • It is difficult to teach a child not to be a snob if you talk about other people as being inferior.
  • It is difficult to teach children to tell the truth if you show them how easy it is to tell so-called “white lies,” like the time you said you didn't want to go to your aunt's because you had the Tasmanian flu.

Children are like little scientists—and you're the principle specimen under their microscope. They will model their conduct after yours in many significant ways. They are very impressionable, and they will accept the reality they are shown until they are old enough to form judgments of their own.

If you want your child to reflect your ethical standards, then look at yourself to see whether you are setting a good example. This does not mean that you need to be perfect, it just means that you need to be a responsible adult who lives the kind of life you expect your child to live. Children are highly sensitive to hypocrisy—they'll spot it immediately if you say one thing and do another.

Having the “Big Talks” with Your Child

When your kids are small, your disciplinary problems will be of the garden-variety type: Teaching them to show respect for others, helping them learn the value of cooperation, encouraging them to do their schoolwork on time. As they get older, however, the moral and ethical choices they face become more complex, and more difficult for you, as a mom, to handle. The two most daunting areas of concern are sex and drugs.

But if you haven't built up a regular habit of talking openly to your children, you're going to run into trouble when it's time to have the big Sex Talk or Drug Talk and have it taken seriously. You need to talk to your children as much as possible about the trivial, the mundane, the weather—whatever is currently on their minds. Your communication with your child needs to be nurtured all the time.

And that nurturing will pay off in major dividends when you find it necessary to deal with the big issues. If you can consciously listen to them enough of the time so you know what is on their minds and so they feel connected to you, you're teaching them that when they really need you they can come and talk to you.

Keeping the lines of communication open doesn't need to be difficult. All it takes is a willingness to be receptive to their interests. They've almost always got something to share.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Motherhood © 1999 by Deborah Levine Herman. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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