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How to be the best role model for your child?

by ines.wurbs@icloud.com

A perfect way to teach our children behaviors is to set a good example for them. How can we bring them closer to the desired behavior, and in which areas are the role model effect best?

In short, the following points will help you to be a good role model:

  • Practice self-reflection
  • Act as you expect your children to act
  • Treat fellow human beings with respect
  • Be honest with your children

How to implement the points and further information can be found in the following article.

Importance of role models in child development

From the very beginning, our children learn from what is happening in their environment. Our children’s caregivers such as parents, grandparents, teachers, and others play a special role here.

As parents, we have a responsibility to equip our children with the skills they will need later in life. There are many ways we can support our children as they grow up.

Children should get two things from their parents: roots and wings.


Learning through role models for parents is of great importance here. Our children are constantly watching us and imitating what they see us doing.  Our children can learn positive and negative behavior from them.

In an Italian study, children between the ages of 11 and 14 were asked who they thought would be a role model for their later careers. The result shows that for many children, parents and relatives play an important role as role models.

4 role models for kids

How to be a positive role model?

In addition to being role models, we parents also have the task of guiding our children’s decisions or making them for them. We have some oversight over our children’s development, and this should influence our behavior as well.

Through this control function, we also have the responsibility to show our children that rules apply to everyone. Also for us parents. This also determines our role model behavior.

The question remains how we should behave as good role models.


Learning through role models is generally referred to as model learning in technical jargon.

How good role models behave

It’s not that difficult to set an example. Acting in an exemplary manner over a long period is a lot more difficult. Parents must maintain their role model attitude for at least an entire childhood.

That certainly doesn’t always work out. In this case, you must observe the following guidelines:

  • Act as you expect your child to do
  • Reinforce desired behavior
  • Reflect on your actions
  • Treat other people and living beings with respect
  • Be honest with your child and yourself
  • Tolerate occasional missteps
  • Stick to your rules

The following chapters will tell you how best to implement these points.

Do what you want your children to do

Do what you want your child to do. This is perhaps the most important point for exemplary behavior. As already mentioned, our children often implement things that they observe with us.

Unfortunately, these are usually not the things that we are proud of ourselves. No, most of the time our children imitate behavior that we, as parents, are not exactly proud of ourselves.


Our children mimic all of our behaviors. It doesn’t matter whether we like it or not.

study by Fogelhom and others at the University of Helsinki found, for example, that parental physical activity has little impact on children being overweight. Conversely, however, yes. If the parents were overweight, this was a strong indication that the children were also struggling with obesity.

For comparison, a study by Moore found that children of parents who were physically active were up to 5.8 times more active than children of parents who were not physically active.

Probability for physically active children in comparison to unsportsmanlike parents
 one parent is physically activeboth parents active
all children3.5x5.8x
Influence of parents’ physical levels on kids

Source: Moore et al. (1991) Influence of parents’ physical activity levels on activity levels of young children

Reinforce desired behavior

We know it from ourselves. The lazy way is often the easy way, at least in the short term. This is probably also the reason why, in the studies mentioned above, unhealthy behavior is immediately passed on to our children and healthy behavior is “only” more likely.

For this reason, we must encourage our children, through praise and the right support, if they imitate “correct” behavior from us. I have already described in a separate article the best way to praise your child.

Reward boards can also be used for a good effect. They set an incentive for the desired behavior and increase the motivation of our children.

Importance of role model chart

But what should you do if your child copies unwanted behavior from you?

Tolerance with your children

If by observing your behavior, your children do something that you do not want, then you should not blame your child for it. Be patient and explain what just went wrong.

You can also use this opportunity to offer the child alternatives for the intended action.

But you should note one point:

Honesty is important

Be honest with your child. Please don’t hesitate to tell your child that you made a mistake yourself. Tell your child that you didn’t mean to do this. Here, you can calmly tell your child to remind you the next time it catches you.

Even if you have done everything right yourself. A good example would be a cooking task. Explain to your child that it is still too small for this and that it could injure itself. But be honest and only say it if it is the case. 

Be self-reflective

In everyday life, it’s not uncommon for us to do some things on autopilot. It can sometimes happen that we also carry out activities in a way that we would not tolerate in our children.

Be aware of such situations and use your child as a mirror. Our children often tell us that we haven’t done something quite right.

Question yourself every once in a while, and especially when your children are around, pay attention.

Show respect

Treat other people and living beings with respect. But especially with your child itself. This makes it feel like you are taking it seriously, and this creates a trusting relationship between you and your child. And that is also a prerequisite for your child to see you as a role model.

If you’re interested in learning more about treating your child with respect, I’ve put together some basic requirements for you.

Stick to your guidelines

Being consistent is not only important for role models. It is the foundation of most parenting styles. Regularity is important for children of all ages. These habits create security in our children.

For example, our children can expect to receive praise when they do something well.


Even if we are supposed to act consistently ourselves, it is important to take breaks. If you want to make it easy for yourself, simply explain to your child the reason for your actions.

But it’s okay if you make exceptions for yourself now and then. When you come home after a particularly hard day and sit down in front of the television, for example. Nevertheless, stay honest with the children here too, and explain why you are doing it this way today.

Most of the time, however, you should live by your own rules so that your children can take you seriously.

What a role model needs

To be considered a role model for another person, there are a few basic requirements. Parents automatically fulfill most of the points when children have established a secure bond with their parents.

Positive role model chart

To be a role model, the following conditions must be met:

  • There must be a similarity between role model and observer, and the activity should be desirable.
  • There must be an emotional relationship between the role model and the observer.
  • The observed activity should be promising for the observer
  • The observer sees the success of the example
  • The role model has a higher social status than the observer
  • The role model has social power over the observer 

As I said, we parents meet these requirements almost automatically. We are similar to our children, we have an emotional connection with them, our status is felt to be higher, and we are in a fundamental position of power over our children.

All that remains is the activity itself. Here one can draw parallels to the two studies mentioned above. If both parents are active in sports, it may be that the success of athleticism is not tangible for the child.

But when we parents sit in front of our mobile phones in the evening, play games, or watch TV, success is relatively easy to see. It’s comfortable, it’s fun, or both.

How role models affect learning

When we learn through observation and adjust our behavior and what we watch, one of two strategies is activated in our brain. These strategies are:

  • The imitation
  • The emulation

Learning through imitation

In imitation, the observed activities are imitated directly. This means that the decisions and actions of the role model are exactly copied. Here the train of thought is pursued, if I do it the same way, I will also be successful.

Mirror neurons

In the case of direct imitation, brain areas are activated, which are also called the mirror system. You can find more details on the mirror system and mirror neurons from the American Psychological Association.

This strategy is often seen in children. For example, with small children trying to open a drinking bottle. Our activities are copied here 1: 1. In most cases, however, it is not yet possible to achieve the desired result. If there is no success, although the approach is right, we should praise the child and help him to reach the goal.

In addition, imitation has a social aspect. We humans feel good around others who are similar to us. This also means that we unconsciously mirror the behavior of likable people.

Learning through emulation

With emulation, the intention is copied instead of the activities. We ask ourselves the question: What is the observed model trying to achieve? The underlying intention is copied, and a separate solution is sought.

This may be because an exact copy of the activity is simply not possible. For example, if our child cannot sit at the table because of its size. So, it finds an alternative way and uses an armchair or pushes a stool to reach the coveted object on the table.

Role models, idols, and stars – what’s the difference?

The terms’ role models, idols, and stars’ sound similar but have different functions and effects. The basic differences are as follows

can be a human direct living environmentunreachable persona standout person
Guide for personal developmentExample of your longings and hopesThe person is rather uninteresting – the way of life is emulated
Idol vs. star

From this table, it can be seen that a role model must be a “tangible” model. It is difficult to deduce actions if we cannot observe our model.

Here, however, the boundary begins to blur. In the Internet age, contact can also be established with YouTube and Instagram stars, for example. One has the feeling of establishing a direct relationship, and thus a star can also become a role model.

Stars are outstanding personalities in a certain profession. Normally, the person is less interesting here. It is rather the achieved fame and the lifestyle in the foreground.

The idol, on the other hand, reflects an unattainable ideal. Idols are idealized images of personalities and are often created by ourselves or idealized by other sources. This creates longings and hopes in us. This allows us to emulate our idols.

Role models and model learning in school

School is a classic example of model learning. It offers many possibilities, and the social learning factor among classmates is to be emphasized here.

Learning success is not only influenced at school, but also by the student’s environment outside of school.

The school combines many elements

At school, many learning principles are combined for learning on the model. 

Students learn certain behaviors from each other. This can relate to language, interests, specific subjects, or other areas.

But the teacher is also to be seen as a role model here. He shows how something works and offers the students help to internalize the learning material. 

Role models: one of three basic learning models

Learning on the model is only one of three learning models. There are three models:

  • Learning on the model (Bandura)
  • Learning by trial and error (Pavlov)
  • Operant learning through targeted reinforcement (Skinner)

Learning on the Bandura model

When learning on the model, observed behaviors or observed successes are tracked. The goal is to learn through observation. 

Learning by trial and error according to Pavlov

Learning by trial and error needs relatively little explanation. We try alternative solutions until one works. Sometimes our perseverance or our ambition is decisive.

When success finally sets in, we have learned how to get there. But this shows a problem with our upbringing.

Be aware

Be careful when you comply with a request from your child. This reinforces the current behavior.

Let’s say your child wants chocolate, and you don’t want to comply with this wish at the moment. Your child asks for chocolate and you say no. Then it wants to get the candy itself, but you prevent it again. Your child will then riot and start crying and/ or screaming as a last resort. Eventually, you give in and make an exception.

At that moment, your child has learned the following: cry = chocolate.  

Operant learning through targeted reinforcement according to Skinner

Operant learning works through targeted reinforcement. Our means of reinforcement are praise and blame. But the most effective way is praise. How to praise correctly and effectively, I have already described in this article.

You can combine targeted reinforcement very well with model learning by reinforcing the desired behavior. Nonetheless, caution is also required here. Be careful not to unknowingly reinforce unwanted behavior. 

If you always pay attention to your child when he or she whines a little, you will reinforce the behavior. So, it is easy for your child to become very tearful.


Being a role model for our children is one of the most effective ways to teach our children. However, this method is not very accurate, since our children choose for themselves which behaviors they like on us.

But as with all learning methods, model learning involves risks if we do not act in a self-reflective manner. In this way, we can stimulate undesirable behavior.

Once a behavior has been learned, it is more difficult to unlearn it afterward.

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