My girls are now 23 and 20 and are at the peak of the dating/relationship phase of life. One leads the hipster, arts-student lifestyle in a heaving, open-all-hours share house. The other hangs out at home with the latest in a string of long-term boyfriends.
Now that they are adults, I can see how powerful parent role modelling is. Children's observations of their parents' relationship become a template for their own relationships. My girls have witnessed my behaviour through three different long-term relationships. They are now choosing partners and behave the same way they saw me do.
Love foreign accents? Yes, let's work our way through an atlas of multicultural boyfriends. Weekend get aways? That's what couples are supposed to do. Expect your boyfriend to conform to your extreme house-cleaning standards? Tick.
Children learn by imitating adults. They copy what they see you do, not what you tell them to do. Seeing your three-year-old stomp around in your high heels is cute. Experiencing your 18-year-old drive the same way you do is terrifying (and I really, really wish I had never ever used a mobile phone while driving with them).
I was once lamenting to a friend how my then-young kids hadn't inherited my love of reading for pleasure. She asked if they ever saw me do it. "Ah... no, I read when they are in bed and they usually see me on my laptop, working." A light-bulb moment for sure.
I now know that kids behaviour modelling is so strong that every time I see a parent cross a road with a child when there's a pedestrian crossing nearby I feel like rushing up to them and saying: "Don't do it -- they will copy you when you are not around and be killed." Clearly, acting like a crazy person is not good role modelling either, so I restrain myself.
So, what would I change about my behaviour if I had the chance to start over?
- Not try to be the super-Mum that no man can ever compete with. It sets the example for both girls and boys that Mum is the almighty and Dad has a bit part.
- Be more demonstratively affectionate with my partner. It shows that the adult relationship is important.
- For the same reason, I would say "I love you" to my partner, frequently, in front of the kids.
- Occasionally prioritise the romantic relationship over the kids. This is harder when the kids are very young, but it's important to carve out regular time to spend together as a couple, not just be parents. The scene from "Meet the Fockers" where Barbra Streisand and Dustin Hoffman put a cowboy hat on their bedroom doorknob to indicate that they are not to be interrupted is a great example of training children that Mum and Dad need time alone together. Another friend trained their kids not to interrupt their parents for the first 30 minutes after getting home from work. The parents enjoy a drink together and debrief about the day before tackling the dinner-bath-bed routine.
- Give compliments and express gratitude to my partner. My kids cringe when I do it in my current relationship, but I know they are soaking it in. The compliments would reinforce the traits in my partner that I valued, such as thoughtfulness and honesty, and hopefully my children would seek out those same traits in their future partners.
- Say sorry often and admit when I am wrong. Too often I demonstrated "Mrs Right" behaviour instead of demonstrating understanding and compromise.
- Express my feelings, even when I know it may cause conflict.
- Demonstrate how to deal with conflict the right way, instead of avoiding it (see above).
- Regularly work on my relationship by attending counselling, reading relationship advice books and generally seeking opportunities to improve my knowledge about how to sustain a long-term relationship.
- Be mindful of my behaviour and how powerful being a role model is. None of us are perfect, but if you are modelling good behaviour most of the time it's a huge investment in your kids' future lives.
While I can't go back in time and be a better role model for my girls, I do have the opportunity to use what I've learnt to be a good role model for my partner's four children, the youngest being only 10. Let's see what they what they observe and model.