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The Children Are Watching

by Michael E. Kirk, PhD
Dr. Kirk is a local clinical psychologist, father and grandfather, who specializes in working with families, adolescents, and children.

A parent comes into the house, acts in a grumpy manner, kicks a child’s toy, and yells at the partner. The parent grabs something from the refrigerator, stomps off down the hallway, and slams the bedroom door. The other parent stands in the kitchen glad to be out of the storm. And, the children are watching.

A family is going to a school activity when one parent says something the other parent finds offensive. The offended parent blurts out just how little he thinks of his partner at the moment. The other parent quietly turns her head and looks out the window unwilling to join the fight. And, the children are watching.

Years ago, Dr. Alfred Bandura completed an exercise in how children learn. Dr. Bandura’s social learning theory says that children learn behaviors, emotional reactions, and attitudes from role models whom they wish to imitate. In this study, preschool children viewed a film in which an adult hit, kicked, and punched a 3.5-foot tall, plastic inflatable Bobo the Clown doll. One-third of the children saw a film that ended with the adult aggressor being rewarded; one-third saw a film that ended with the adult aggressor being punished; and one-third saw a no-consequence edition for the aggressor. The children were then allowed in a playroom filled with eye-catching toys including a Bobo doll. Children who saw rewarded or unrewarded aggression were more likely to beat up the Bobo doll. However, children who saw the adult get punished for the aggression did not hit the Bobo doll. These results showed that whether or not the children acted aggressively depended on their observations of another person’s experiences with reward and punishment.

This means that whatever behavior a parent displays and the consequences of that behavior are being observed by the children, and the children are learning a lesson. Without any type of significant consequence or punishment happening to the offending parent, the children learn one can act in that manner and get away with it. It means that every day, we are teaching our children how to act through the way we behave as parents. Every day that we behave inappropriately with a partner, and the children observe a lack of any dire consequences, you can assume the children will try the behavior as well.

Of course, the children are not really able to see the discomfort partners have after they fight, right? Children are never really able to notice the tension partners have after bullying one or the other, right? Children are not really aware of how much one partner has hurt the other, right? Or, do they notice the discomfort, the tension, and the hurt? And, then, what do these children do after they have observed a parent bully the other parent? Well, the children look for a Bobo doll of their own, at home and at school, a brother, sister, or peer. After all, there was no real punishment befalling the angry parent. He or she got away with it, right?

Treating each other right, for one another and for the children, is the only practical answer here. The children are not yet able to understand the unhappiness that prevails when parents fight, but the children will still copy the behavior. When the consequence of fighting is divorce, is that punishment enough to prevent a child from misbehaving after seeing adults fight? Do we need to take it to that extreme? Change everyone’s life, because we found anger acceptable?

Teach your children to behave through your own behavior with others. Consideration and patience can be learned as well. The children are watching.

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Tags: Featured Story, Parenting

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