My toddler thinks she can do anything—until she can’t. “Mommy do it!” she demands, thrusting the offending object my way. Daddy also gets flustered quickly, like the time he let the f-bomb fly while fussing with three different TV remotes. Now our daughter has a new weapon to deploy when a video takes more than two seconds to load.
Did my daughter inherit his temperamental ways? Can parents pass on traits that aren’t in the DNA, like sense of humor or style? Child psychologists say yes. It’s called modeling, where a child learns by observation and imitation. And like the genes that provided our daughter’s red hair and pixie nose, it contributes to who our kids become, says George Holden, Ph.D., a psychologist at Southern Methodist University and author of Parenting: A Dynamic Perspective. “When you observe a behavior in your child, ask yourself, ‘Where did that come from?’ In many cases for young children, it came from a parent.”
Kathy Kane of Denver sees modeling played out in a more positive way. Her 5-year-old son, Patrick, has had plenty of opportunities to watch his mom paint and draw, and has picked up on her artistic sensibility. “He’ll stop and tell me how beautiful something is, or point out cloud shapes,” notes Kane, adding that “according to his teacher, Patrick is well developed in writing his letters and shapes.” Not a bad by-product.
Does this mean we can direct our kids to pick up our interests? Yes, with limits, says Margaret Tresch Owen, Ph.D., director of the Center for Children and Families at the University of Texas. “Show enthusiasm or recognition for an ability you like,” she says. But if your kid has no interest in becoming the next Picasso, leave it be.
As for those not-so-great traits: When Jackie Candelaria of Orlando sees her youngest child lashing out at his older brother, she thinks he’s acquired her occasional hotheadedness: “I’ve told him that Mommy doesn’t always handle things the best way.” Good move: Awareness of your actions—and a willingness to talk about them—are the best ways to stop the cycle, says Owen. In a calm moment, she suggests saying, “I showed you a side of myself yesterday that I don’t feel good about.”
“Letting your child know the difference between appropriate and questionable behavior will help him make better decisions about expressing raw emotion,” explains Owen.
As for our 2-year-old, my husband and I have become more conscientious about our behavior. Because in the long run, patience is more important than her red hair and pixie nose, although patience isn’t nearly as cute.