Pattie’s Parenting Tip – When Words Don’t Match Their Action

Authored by Pattie Carroll

Every time we as parents say something, take an action, or have a reaction to someone or something, our children are observing our behavior. This is how children gain language skills and eventually learn to talk. Preschoolers depend upon their observations of parents and caregivers as they begin to understand and learn about interpersonal relationships. And even teenagers are listening to adults’ words and observing their actions.

Children learn how to behave by seeing how their mothers, fathers, and other caregivers behave and by following their example. You have heard it before… “actions speak louder than words”.

Here are examples of common times when parents’ words don’t match their actions and a tip on how to be more congruent with actions and words.

You ask the right question, without hearing the answer.

For example, you say to your child, “Tell me about your day.” However, you send the wrong message if you ask the question while you’re busy getting dinner on the table or doing other household chores. What your child observes is that although you want to talk to them, you don’t have a lot of time because your busy getting dinner prepared or you are doing other household chores.

Try this instead. Find some time when you can put aside chores, sit down with your child, look at them, ask about them about their day, and really listen. Doing this aligns your words and your actions and demonstrates to your child that you are truly available.

You encourage gratitude–but you don’t expect it for yourself. You have probably asked your children things like “Did you thank Danny’s mom for inviting you to the party?” I am sure model appreciative behavior yourself by letting your child hear you say “thanks” to the cashier, the hair dresser etc… Encouraging your child to say thank you to other people but not expecting gratitude for yourself is incongruent.

Try this instead. Expect and accept gratitude from your children for the things you do for them once in a while. You can even say something like, “I sure could use a thank you” after you ran your child and his friends around town all afternoon. Encouraging, practicing and modeling gratitude in the home will match your words when you expect it outside the home.

You urge your child to calm down–but you don’t show her how. We want our kids to understand that if they’re angry, they need to calm down and learn to express their feelings in an acceptable way. Children can learn a lot about resolving conflicts by watching the way their parents struggle with difficult emotions.

Try this instead. Rather than stuffing negative feelings away so your kids won’t see them, show them that you are experiencing a difficult emotion and model ways of dealing with those feelings. For example, when you feel angry describe that to your child by saying, “I am angry right now, so I am going to take a deep breath to calm down.”

You present a powerful model when you let your child see you trying to handle your own strong emotions. Your child sees in a concrete way that the things you tell him to do are consistent with how you behave.


All the Best,
Patricia Carroll | UW-Madison, Division of Extension
Associate Professor, Dept of Family Development
Human Development & Relationships Educator, Dodge County
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