Being a Role Model – The Promise and the Peril

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
He’s just like his father.
Like father, like son
A chip off the old block
She is definitely her mother’s daughter.

footstepsCommon sense, simple observation, and psychological research show that these down-home adages reflect a truth in human development – that children often grow up to mimic the behavior, beliefs, and attitudes of their parents.

  • Children whose parents smoke are more likely to smoke themselves.
  • If parents abuse alcohol or drugs, their children are more likely to do the same.
  • Children raised in homes that experience frequent domestic violence are more likely to either abuse their spouses or be abused by them.
  • Adults who were abused as children are more likely to abuse their own children.

On the flip side, children also repeat positive behaviors they see in their parents.

  • Multiple generations of the same family enter into the same profession: law enforcement, fire prevention, medicine, law, teaching, etc.
  • Children whose parents have healthy self-esteem tend to be more confident and hold themselves in higher regard.
  • Children whose parents have succeeded in school tend to meet with academic success themselves and stay in school longer than children whose parents dropped out of school.
  • Children of happily married parents tend to find the same satisfaction in their love relationships.


How Traits are Passed Along

Part of the explanation for why qualities of parents are often repeated in their offspring is genetic, indicating the power of “nature,” that is, heredity. But part of the explanation also lies in the impact of the environment in which a child is raised, which is referred to as “nurture.”

The answer to the age-old question of why children often seem so much like their parents probably is that both nature and nature play a role in how children develop. And, of course, both of these influences come from a child’s parents.

It is the environmental piece that parents have much more control over.

  • The kind of emotional environment established in the home and the child-rearing style used by the parents have a mighty influence on a child’s development.
  • Another major mechanism through which parents impact their children’s growth toward maturity is by the kind of role models they are. This process occurs consciously as well as without awareness on the part of the parent.


What We Know About Role Modeling

Role models are people who influence others by serving as examples. They are often admired by the people who emulate them. Through their perceived personal qualities, behaviors, or achievements, they can inspire others to strive and develop without providing any direct instruction.

Social scientists have shown that much of learning that occurs during childhood is acquired through observation and imitation.

For most children, the most important role models are their parents and caregivers, who have a regular presence in their lives.

As a parent, it is impossible to not model. Your children will see your example – positive or negative – as a pattern for the way life is to be lived. Therefore, depending on what you do or do not do, you can be either:

  • a very important protective factor (an environmental influence that protects against problem behavior)
  • or a very powerful risk factor (an environmental condition that is associated with an increase in problem behavior).

According to David Streight, executive director of the Council for Spiritual and Ethical Education and a nationally certified school psychologist, we know the following about good role models for children:

  • The way you act and the kind of model you offer your children constitutes one of the five well-researched practices proven to maximize the chances your kids will grow up with good consciences and well-developed moral reasoning skills.
  • The right kind of modeling can influence how much empathy your child will end up feeling and showing in later life.
  • The chances of your children growing up to be altruistic – to be willing to act for the benefit of others, even when there are no tangible rewards involved – are better depending on the kinds of role models children grow up with.
  • Good role models can make lifelong impressions on children, regarding how to act in the difficult situations that they will inevitably face in life.

Role modeling is one of the most powerful tools you have in your parenting tool belt to influence the direction of your children’s character, whatever their age. When used to best advantage, you can pass on the values you want your children to adopt so that they become the adults you would like them to be.


How to be an Effective Role Model for your Children

Being a positive role model actually requires effort, fore-thought, and self-control for most parents. Because your children are watching you all the time, your actions, beliefs, and attitudes become integrated into your children’s way of being; therefore, it is very important that you be very intentional about what behaviors you model for your children.

Being aware of this huge responsibility can encourage you to better yourself: for example, if you do not want your child to smoke, then one of the most effective ways you can communicate that is to quit smoking yourself or not start in the first place.

Walk the Talk

Unfortunately for parents, the saying “Do as I say, not as I do” simply does not work. Children can sniff out hypocrisy like a blood hound, and they gain the most from parents who demonstrate consistency between their actions and their values by “walking the talk.”

  • If you don’t want your children to lie to get out of going to school by feigning illness, then you best not lie about taking a “sick” day from work.
  • If you don’t want your children to spend excessive time on technology devices, you have to limit your use of the same devices.

Kids respect adults who live by the rules they preach. Hypocrisy disillusions children and sends them looking for alternative role models to follow.

Review your Own Behavior and Attitudes

Model through your own actions. For example, consider how you:

  • handle stress and frustration
  • respond to problems
  • express anger and other emotions
  • treat other people
  • deal with competition, responsibilities, loss, mistakes
  • celebrate special occasions
  • take care of yourself (what you eat, how much you exercise, balance your commitments)

Model through your Words

Your children are not only watching you carefully for clues about how to be; they are also listening to you. The way you speak, what you speak about, and the opinions you express will influence their values.

Consider how you speak to them, your spouse, your friends and neighbors, the check-out person at the grocery store.

  • Do you model respect of others through your words and tone of voice?
  • Do your words indicate respect for differences and tolerance toward all people or do they subtly support lack of acceptance for others different from yourself?
  • Do you “bully” your children with harsh words and threats when they misbehave, or do you respond with discipline based on respect for your children’s humanity?

Focus on Positives You Can Model for your Children

Ask yourself what kind of people you want your children to become, and then consider what you can do to model the behaviors and attitudes that would reflect that kind of person. This is another way of saying that it is helpful for you to examine your own values. For example, do you want your children to:

    thumb up

  • develop a strong work ethic?
  • have a generosity of spirit?
  • have courage?
  • stand up for their beliefs?
  • be kind and considerate?
  • be patient?
  • be diligent and persistent?
  • be assertive?
  • be a contributing member of society?
  • take good care of their bodies?
  • be open to new learning? To find pleasure in reading?

If you wish for these traits in your children, then do these things yourself!

Build Strong Relationships with your Children

You will be a larger influence in your children’s lives if you have a warm and nurturing relationship with them, and your children are more likely to emulate you if they feel close to you and supported by you.

  • Give them unconditional love in a safe environment that also provides consistent, firm, and flexible discipline so they know what is expected of them.
  • Listen to them without judgment when they are upset. Share your own feelings with them so they get to know you; share some of your choices and decision-making as examples to guide them.
  • Find ways to have fun with them, to share interests, to enjoy one another’s company (preparing a meal, discussing a TV show, playing sports together, etc.).

Build a connection with them based on trust so they know they can count on you when they need you, and so that they learn to be trustworthy in return.

Be Forgiving of Mistakes

Nobody is perfect – neither you nor your children. That means that mistakes will be made. What is most important when mistakes are made is the way you handle the situation.

When you or your children or someone else makes an error:

  • are you unforgiving or accepting?
  • do you deal calmly with the situation to resolve it or do you berate the perpetrator?
  • do you get angry and look for someone to blame or do you assess what has gone wrong and consider what can be learned to avoid a repetition?

If you make a mistake by doing something that you later regret, you can use that as an opportunity to show your children how to handle errors in judgment by

  • acknowledging the misstep.
  • accepting responsibility for your part in it.
  • apologizing to any hurt parties.
  • finding ways to make amends.
  • thinking about what you can do next time so you don’t repeat the error.

These steps are all part of a healthy process of reacting when you mess up. This is the same process you can use if you respond to your children in a way that you later regret.

opportunityAnd what do you do when your children make a mistake? You can:

  • let them know that mistakes are opportunities for learning and that nobody is perfect.
  • help them to go through the steps outlined.
  • have a forgiving and responsible attitude toward making mistakes.

Your children will see you living these lessons if you are kind to yourself when you make a mistake and if you are accepting of them when they do.

Additionally, if you address problems and conflicts in your own life (such as trying to lose weight or dealing with a difficult neighbor) and share the process with your children in an age-appropriate way, you can encourage your children to address their concerns similarly. You are modeling for your children an approach to life that includes on-going growth, learning, improvement, and development.

What a great life lesson for your kids to learn. It takes so much pressure off them (they don’t have to be perfect) because you have modeled for them how to treat themselves and others when the inevitable mess-ups happen. What a hopeful and optimistic attitude to pass on to your kids!

Tips for Effective Role-Modeling

  • Include your children in family discussions, and use these as ways to show them how people can get along with others and work together

  • Practice what you preach. Children notice when you don’t.
  • embracing life 

  • Work towards a healthy lifestyle by eating well and exercising regularly. Avoid making negative comments about your body – and other people’s too. Not only will you be healthier, but you will send an important message about body image and acceptance.

  • Show that you enjoy education and learning. If you make it seem interesting and enjoyable rather than a chore, you child is more likely to have a positive attitude toward school.

  • Keep a positive attitude in your life – think, act, and talk in an optimistic way.

  • Take responsibility for yourself by admitting your own mistakes and talking about how you can correct them. Do not blame everything that goes wrong on other people or circumstances.

  • Use problem-solving skills to deal with challenges or conflicts in a calm and productive way. Getting upset or angry when a problem comes up teaches your child to respond in the same way.

  • Show kindness and respect to others in your words and your actions.


Other Influencers

thumbs up thumbs downSo far, we have talked about parents as the most significant role models that children have. But we all know that children have many other role models in their lives.

Although this can instill fear/concern in parents about who else is influencing their children, it is actually recommended that you encourage your children to find other people who can serve as healthy role models.

Positive Role Models

Examples of people who can add depth and breadth to your children’s development and life experiences are:

  • teachers,
  • coaches,
  • club leaders,
  • members of the clergy,
  • older siblings or cousins or other family members,
  • neighbors,
  • friends’ parents.

These people often play a key role in supporting, mentoring, and encouraging your children in positive ways.

You can help your children choose positive role models by talking with them about who:

  • has made a big difference in your life and what specifically that person did.
  • you look to for guidance and inspiration.
  • of your family members or friends have shown real courage, kindness, humor, or determination in their lives.
  • in your community are a good influence on others and why.
  • who do they admire.
    • What do they like about that person?
    • Can they identify the characteristics?
    • Do they want to be more like this person?
    • What would happen if people in your family, at school, or in the community behaved like this person?

Negative Role Models

When the concept of other role models comes up, parents often think about negative role models, such as celebrities or sports figures who behave in reprehensible ways and yet have our children’s attention and admiration.


Children may assume that the behaviors of negative role models are typical, safe, and acceptable.

The good news is that with a strong relationship with your children, you can impart values that will counter the negative influences from the media or peers. You can intervene by emphasizing that role models who exhibit inappropriate behavior are not acceptable.

Some suggestions to help you talk to your children about role models who have made mistakes are:

  • Remind your children that all people have good and bad qualities and that anyone can make a mistake.
  • Differentiate between the role model’s public talents and performances and his personal life choices; emphasize that he may be good on the basketball court or football field or concert stage and your children may admire that, but his private behavior is not worth emulating.
  • Ask your children what they think of the role model’s behavior.
  • Ask what they would have done differently in the situation.
  • Give examples of more positive and healthier ways to handle the situation.

If you are concerned that your children are being negatively influenced by their choice of role model, you can encourage them to become involved in activities that reflect your values, such as community service, religious programs, athletics, afterschool programs, clubs, etc.

You can also remind your children that they do not have to do everything that the role model does. They can copy what they like and disregard the behavior that is not appropriate.

Peer Group

friends sitting on a wallYour children’s peers and friends are also important influences in their lives. Although there is a lot of concern about the negative influence of the “peer group” and peer pressure, especially during adolescence, there is a lot of important developmental growth that takes place through your children’s connection to their friends.

Their peer group:

  • teaches your children social skills and what is socially acceptable.
  • opens your children’s world to ideas beyond those of your family.
  • may encourage your children to be giving and caring toward their friends even when they are not inclined to be so toward their own family members.
  • gives them opportunities to manage group dynamics.
  • helps them to understand the people they will travel through life with.

Remember that parents and peers influence different things.

As a parent, you influence your children’s basic values, and issues related to their future, such as educational choices. The stronger and healthier your relationship with your children, the greater the influence you will have.

Your children’s friends are more likely to influence everyday behavior, such as the music they listen to, the clothes they wear, and to some extent the risk-taking behavior they engage in.

Your being a good role model and engaging in conversations such as those listed above can counter the effects of negative peer pressure and enable you to influence your children’s choices of which people outside the family they use as models.

The Promise of Being a Good Role Model

The question is not whether your children will emulate you; they will. The question is which behaviors they will imitate. Through role modeling, you have the ability to influence your children’s development in positive ways and make it more likely that they become people you will admire when they mature. What kids see and believe, they become.

Deciding what behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs you want to model gives you the opportunity to consider your own values – what traits and behaviors do you want your children to exhibit?

With the responsibility of behaving in ways you want your children to emulate comes the possibility of self-improvement, growth, and increased insight.

As you consciously influence your children’s growth and development, you have the potential to positively impact your family legacy for generations to come. Each day, little by little, you can build a legacy of emotional health and resiliency for your children to inherit. Remember – what goes around, comes around, from one generation to the next.


By Audrey Krisbergh, Certified Parenting Educator



For more information about parenting, check out the following books. Purchasing books from our website through supports the work we do to help parents do the best job they can to raise their children.  A few of our favorites:

Liberated Parents, Liberated Children by Faber and Mazlish Blessings of a Skinned Knee by Wendy Mogel The Whole Brain Child by Dan Siegel Parenting by Heart by Ron Taffel

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