Parenting, Children, and Observational Learning
Remember the old parental admonition, "Don't do as I do, do as I say?"
A mother tells her adult son that she is worried about his drinking too much. She has this discussion with him as she joins him for a drink at the local bar. She has been a heavy drinking since his childhood.
A father takes Valium by prescription for his anxiety disorder. He wonders why his supply seems to diminish so fast but just shrugs his shoulders and dismisses it, not thinking to ask his wife or children about it. His Medical Doctor is equally unconcerned.
A woman is very troubled by the fact that her son was suspended from school for distributing drugs to other youngsters. The drugs he was caught giving away were his older sibling's ADHD prescription medications. They were no longer in use but she just kept them stored in the medicine cabinet and never gave them another thought.
Parents drink wine on a daily basis and then indulge in smoking marijuana. They make no attempt to hide any of this from their children. They rationalize that weed is harmless and relaxing and wine is good for preventing cardio-vascular disease, at least, that is what they have read. They are benignly unware that their adolescent children are purchasing marijuana at school and are smoking in between classes and during times when teachers are absent or they are absenting themselves from classes they do not like.
All of these cases are true in that they represent parental behavior all across the nation. None of these are people who would classify themselves as irresponsible parents. In fact, friends and neighbors would agree, if asked, that these are good families who demonstrate a lot of love for their children and who are excellent neighbors to have.
Indeed, when called to school because their children were caught in illegal behaviors involving the purchase and sale of drugs, these parents react with shock and disbelief. With all sincerity, these parents ask themselves, "How could this have happened?"
How Could This Happen?
This is not an easy question to answer. There is never one single factor that causes young people to get into trouble during or after school. Our children are subject to such forces as peer pressure, temptation, bullying, curiosity and Television and Movies that can romanticize violence, sex, drug abuse and criminal behavior.
In addition to these influences are the types of behaviors role modelled by parents from the moment of birth and into adolescence. These role modelling behaviors include parental alcohol and drug abuse.
What I want to make perfectly clear is that none of these parents are bad people attempting to destroy the lives of their children. Mostly, they are people who are in denial about the impact of their behaviors on their children.
These very same parents may verbally instruct their children about the dangers of alcohol and drugs and counsel them to stay away from any children, teenagers or adults at school or in the neighborhood who are attempting to lure them into drug abuse.
What many adults misunderstand is the plain fact that children learn more from what they see us do than from what we tell them to do. Here are some additional examples of parental behaviors that have the opposite effects of those hoped for:
1. A parent warns her child to never smoke cigarettes because it is unhealthy while the child sees the parent smoking on a daily basis.
2. Many families send their children to Sunday School for religious instruction and inform their children with great emphasis on the necessity of being spiritual and religious. These same families remain home during Sunday School instruction and never see the inside of a Church with the exception of Christmas.
3. Responsible parents expect their children to respect their teachers, do their homework and read books. Yet, they are never seen by the children, reading a book. Instead, the parents are watching television while demanding that homework be completed. What is even worse, is that while these people talk about respecting school and teachers, they immediately complain about the school system and take sides with the child against teachers and administrators without ever making an effort to learn the truth about what really happened at school.
There are no perfect parents as there are no perfect children, schools or ways to live. All anyone can do and expect is to make the very best effort they can to raise their children in ways that will help them become the successful people everyone hopes for.
However, the old admonition, "Don't do as I do, do as I say," does not work and never did. The reason is that children end up doing "what we did, and, not what we said." Therefore, every loving and caring parent must be cognizant of the fact that their children are carefully observing everything they see at home. If you, as a parent, expect one type of behavior from your child but practice the opposite behavior, that is what you will come to see your teenager once they are in High School and beyond.
Your comments and questions are welcome.
Allan N. Schwartz, PhD.