Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies™

Parenting Styles

By Dr. Roger McIntire originally published on

Here's a common question from parents--"How can I set a good example of praise and encouragement when my kids do so many things wrong? It's hard to avoid being just a policeman."

Rules Versus Models

Rules and consequences are necessary, but the model you present is important too. When the kids are young, many parents wonder which has more influence, their example or their rules. But as the children grow up parents see the imprint of both their rules and their example on their child's personality.

Imitation is the most common human behavior. Of course, we make our own choices occasionally, but when we think of all our daily activities, we realize many of our cues come from others. The particulars change as the needs change and new solutions are needed. So the individual behavior is not copied so much as the parental disposition, mood, and social style.

Most educators believe children remember 10% of what they read, 20% of what they hear, and 30% of what they see. Then as they imitate their parents and others, children remember 70% of what they repeat and 90% of the actions they imitate. The resulting personality is often amazingly similar to the original.

Your example comes as much from what you look for as from the consequences you give out. And because bad behavior is often much more noticeable than good, it's easy to get sidetracked--

"Brian, you got your homework done before dinner, that's great. Now please eat your peas."
"No thanks, I don't like green stuff."
"Sit down on your chair right. It will slip and you'll fall."
"No, I won't." This prediction is followed by a slipping chair, loud crash, and scattered peas.
"Now look what you've done!"

Mom starts off catching Brian being good--getting the homework done--but she couldn't resist the habit of picking out the old problems to criticize and correct. Watching out for the good behaviors is a tedious task with fewer opportunities to support but there's always something to criticize. Brian may see the usual routine as one of mostly negative reactions from his parents. If these are the behaviors he copies and practices, his attitude will also be critical, cynical, and grumpy. What to do? How can Mom and Dad keep a proper model in this circumstance?

Often a parent's complaints are very specific (he won't eat his peas and he spills things at supper) while the hopes and expectations of a wish list are likely to be vague (he should try to act nice).

The mistakes will be obvious when they happen and consequences can be handed out. The positive general expectations will not be confirmed in one family moment. So in the next few seconds of family life, it's the bad behavior that's likely to get a reaction.

To achieve a better balance in the model you present, try this exercise: Make a priority list of five good expectations and a list of five current problems. Try to make the positive list as specific as the negative one.

Keep the lists short, especially the problem list. Now watch for both. Catch 'em being good at least as often as you catch 'em being bad.