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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 all 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“, says Elizabeth Pantley, a local parent educator and author of Hidden Messages: What Our Words and Actions Are Really Telling Our Children. “Parents can’t say, ‘Don’t model me today,’” says Sal Sever, author of How to Behave So Your Children Will, Too! “There needs to be constant awareness of how their behavior affects children.”

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,” Sever says. “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:

• Children learn healthful eating from their parents, and even if kids aren’t dieting, they watch when parents do. “Parents with the best intentions try to eliminate fats and sweets and only eat the ‘right’ kinds of foods,” says Abigail Natienshon, author of When Your Child Has an Eating Disorder. “What they’re really instilling is that restriction is equivalent to healthy eating.” Instead, she says, “Healthy eating is the ability to eat everything in a balanced and varied diet.” 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 says. “When parents use food as a reward, it sends the message that food is not about nourishment, it’s about performance.”

• “You can preach all day long about being honest,” says Sal Sever. “You can be good yourself 95% of the time. But the one time you mess up, children really zoom in on it. When kids hear you lying, it registers, ’Gee, I guess it’s OK sometimes not to tell the truth.’” If they know you lie to others, they’ll think it’s okay to lie to you.

The family is society’s most basic unit. As it goes, so goes our world. We all have an awesome responsibility. Together let’s resolve not only to do good, but also to be good.

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