Little eyes are watching

Family: Parents' actions -- for good or bad -- really do speak louder than words.

Family Matters

November 04, 2001|By Stephanie Dunnewind | Stephanie Dunnewind,Knight Ridder / Tribune

Parents don't intentionally teach kids to lie, or scream "Jerk!" out the window at another driver, or get into nasty fights.

We try to instill our best values in our kids. But they absorb what we do, even when we don't mean for them to.

"A lot of parents mean well, but they aren't really aware that their actions are actually teaching a lesson opposite of what they intend," said Elizabeth Pantley, author of Hidden Messages: What Our Words and Actions Are Really Telling Our Children.

Fortunately, even goofing up can turn into a lesson.

"When kids catch parents messing up, that's when it's most important to be a role model," said Sal Severe, author of How to Behave So Your Children Will, Too! "By taking responsibility for our actions and trying to fix what we did wrong, we're giving children the best example."

Here are a few areas where parents sometimes send unintentional messages to children:

Wide load ahead

Most parents don't tell their kids to dislike fat people or to develop an eating disorder. They say things like "Beauty is only skin deep" and "Personality is more important than appearance."

But many unconsciously send the message that being fat is horrible and a thing to mock, said Abigail Natenshon, author of When Your Child Has an Eating Disorder.

"If a family is sitting watching TV and parents are critical of the way actors look, that message is picked up and taken in by children," she said.

Parents might joke, even lovingly, about an overweight relative or friend needing a "wide-load" sign. Or they may constantly disparage their own bodies.

Some parents give children food to keep them quiet, to avoid conflict or as bribery. "This gives the message that rather than deal with problems, it's better to eat instead," she said.

All's fair in love and war

Children who grow up in homes where parents fight violently suffer lifelong consequences. But even in stable families, couples disagree.

"Of all the lessons that parents unknowingly teach their children, perhaps the one that has the most visible consequences is how parents handle their differences," writes Judith Siegel in her book, What Children Learn From Their Parents' Marriage.

Some parents think that fighting in front of children sets a poor example. But research shows that children react more to the tension created when parents give each other "the silent treatment" than when they fight openly.

"Children who do not have the chance to see conflict being handled in a constructive way do not get to learn ways of managing differences in their own lives," says Siegel, a family therapist.

Get out of my way, you jerk

Parents who would never yell names at a person face-to-face still lose it when a driver cuts them off. While the person in the other car can't hear them, the little people in the back seat can.

When psychologist Arnold Nerenberg, author of The Handbook for Overcoming Road Rage, studied what variables contribute to aggressive driving, the No. 1 factor was having an angry parent driver.

"If you're always cursing and beeping your horn and giving obscene gestures, children think that's just part of driving," Nerenberg said.

Daddy's not home right now

Your son just turned 12. He still looks small, so why pay that extra $2 for an adult movie ticket?

"Your child knows he's 12," said Severe, a school psychologist. "By your example, he's learning it's OK to steal as well as lie."

Even by lying about little things -- asking your child to tell telemarketing callers that you're not home, skipping out of a PTA meeting on the excuse of an illness when you really want to watch Friends -- you're giving kids permission to be dishonest when it's convenient.

"You can preach all day long about being honest," Severe said. "You can be good yourself 95 percent of the time. But the one time you mess up, children really zoom in on it."

Money comes from ATMs

Parents want kids to value their possessions and appreciate treats. When these items are provided without limits, however, kids take the bounty for granted.

"Parents often set themselves up with children in regards to money," said Pantley. "They grab a pizza and rent videos without giving it much thought. But it's teaching kids there's an endless supply of money."

When children ask to buy something, Pantley says, parents should explain why they choose not to spend money on that item rather than simply telling a child they can't afford it.

Pantley also thinks parents misuse an allowance by tying it to chores.

"Paying kids an allowance for doing chores makes sense up front," she said. "But the message it's telling children is that if you want money, you do the chores. Then they get a job at McDonald's and decide they'd rather work there than do chores around the house."

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