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April 17, 2023

A few weeks ago I started giving Isabella, my 10-month-old, food to feed herself. She would make a mess, as all babies do, and I’d have to clean her up.

The first time I went to wash her face with a rag, she pushed it away and fought. A lot of babies do this, and often our response as parents is to fight the child and force them to wash their face. But that almost always leads to a battle at every future cleanup, and that’s not what I want.

When I thought of that, it hit me that the reason Isabella was pushing it away was because she didn’t understand it. I realized it was totally new to her. How did she know it was safe? How did she know it was a good thing? I thought, “Maybe the best way to teach her it is safe is for me to do it first.” After all, children and people, in general, learn by example. We’re designed this way.

With that thought in mind, I took the rag away from her face, making sure I had her attention on me. I let her see me wash my own face with the same rag. Once I knew she saw me do it, I said, “Okay, your turn.” She pushed her chin up toward me and let me gently wipe her face without a fuss. All the time I was saying, “We’re washing up!” and praised her for a job well done.

The next few times after eating, I would make sure she saw me wash my own face first and then say “Your turn.” Now she wants to wash her own face and we’ve never once had a clean-up battle.

This simple thing reminded me that children portray behavior that they first learn from someone else. Parents have the most influence unless there is a greater influence in the child’s life. That’s a topic in itself for another time.

What this reminded me of was how much my children will portray in their own behavior what they see in JD and me. A great deal of that will be me. That’s a sobering thought, but the quote “more is caught than taught” is true with all children.

It causes me to step back and look at myself when I see negative behavior coming from my children in any area. It’s easy to call out their ugly and scold them for it, but I have to ask myself where did they learn it. Maybe it’s not particularly my influence, but I’ll still look to see if it’s an area in which I need to change myself. It is my responsibility to first set an example that is easily understood before I start challenging them on their behavior.

If I discover I need to change something in me, I’ll say something like, “Hey, I recognize that I [name the issue], but it’s not right, and it’s not who I want to be. I want that to change for both of us, so here’s what I’m going to work on, and I want you to practice it with me.” Then move forward and practice. If you mess up, admit it and change it. Help them change by setting a new example, and show grace because you’re both learning to make a new habit pathway in your brains. Remember, you’re on the same team! Of course these conversations are with my almost-9-year-old, not the baby.

The moral of the story is: you go first. Don’t be a hypocrite and expect a change in them when you’re not first willing to set that example in yourself. If you expect from them what you’re not doing, they will see you for what you are—a hypocrite. I say it because I’ve been there, done that.

You may be wondering if it actually works, especially if the behavior has been there for a while. The answer is yes. It takes work and time, but I can testify that it does work beautifully.

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