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An Example of Yourself
You Model Good Behavior. They Follow -- Sometimes.

By Jennifer Huget
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, April 15, 2008

"Here I go, kids, off to yoga class!"

(There my kids sit, watching TV on the couch.)

"Here I am, guys, eating my healthy breakfast!"

(There they go, off to school, having eaten no breakfast at all.)

The concept of modeling -- demonstrating through your own actions the behaviors you'd like your kids to adopt -- is firmly entrenched in child psychology and child-rearing realms. Whether or not they use the word "modeling," just about any parenting guide will advise you to set a good example through your actions: to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.

In my family, modeling has often paid off. My husband and I strap on our seat belts, and we hear the two clicks from the back seat as our kids do the same. We're both reasonably polite in our dealings with others, and our son and daughter show respect, too -- at least, that's what we hear from neighbors and friends.

But as the two hurtle toward and through adolescence, I'm noticing some resistance. Yoga? They'd sooner die than be caught doing down dog. Read the classic novels I devoured in my youth? You've got to be kidding!

Chatting with my friends and fellow moms, I find this experience is pretty common. I even called up Jared Fogle, the famous former fat guy who lost 245 pounds by eating little other than food from Subway. Fogle, whose stunning weight loss was featured a couple of weeks ago in a column by Sally Squires, says his parents -- his family-physician dad, his preschool-teacher mom -- set good examples.

"There was not a lot of junk food in the house," Fogle told me, "and they cooked fairly healthy meals."

"Still," he says, "I was a hardheaded kid. I didn't care enough to change. It was easier to go the other direction."

"My dad went on jogs," Fogle recalls. "I'm literally watching him warm up. He goes and jogs, comes back, and I'm still watching TV."

Sound familiar?

According to the parenting experts I consulted, in modeling as in much else in life, timing and flexibility are key.

William Coleman, a professor of pediatrics at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, confirms modeling's importance, noting that from the very beginning, children pick up cues from the way we treat our spouses, how we resolve differences, and how we express our anger and other feelings.

"People think that kids are balls of putty sitting in their high chair," Coleman says. "But a child is observing a parent. They read us, our facial expressions, and learn 'this is how you do it.' "

The problem? "Much of our modeling has been accomplished by [the time the child is] age 3 to 6." After that, he suggests, "sometimes modeling only goes so far."

To encourage a kid to follow your lead in getting regular exercise, for instance, Coleman says you might have to take authoritative action: "Remove some distractions, modify the homework schedule -- make the parents be the heavies. Maybe you say there will be no more TV time, and bedtime's at 9 o'clock" if the child refuses to exercise, but tell them they can get TV back if they get off their duffs and get moving.

Sounds reasonable. Then I talked to Judith Rich Harris, the controversial author of "The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do" (Free Press, 1999) and "No Two Alike" (W.W. Norton, 2006) who has made a career of insisting that parents have far less power than peers and genetics over kids' behaviors.

In an e-mail, Harris notes that "if a child went around actually behaving like an adult, he or she would be seen as quite peculiar. . . . The child's job is to figure out what kind of person he or she is -- the social category [for example, 'preteen' or 'teenager'] he or she belongs in -- and then figure out how that kind of person is expected to behave."

There are behaviors that parents can successfully model, Harris says, noting that these include methods of cooking and cleaning, practicing a particular religion, how to throw a baseball, or how to play the piano.

For the most part, though, Harris is convinced that genetics trumps parenting. She points to studies showing that "on average, adult adoptees resemble their biological parents in fatness or thinness. They do not resemble their adoptive parents or adoptive siblings at all. Even though (biologically unrelated) adoptive siblings are reared in the same home, and exposed to the same parental 'models,' they are no more alike in fatness or thinness than two people picked at random," she writes.

Harris adds that studies involving adoptees or twins that control for the effects of genes "have shown pretty conclusively that the home environment -- which includes the example set by the parents -- has no long-term effects on children's eating behavior. Even young children who don't go out much, and who eat all their meals with their parents, are unwilling to eat foods -- broccoli, for instance -- that they see their parents eating. Attempts to persuade them to try it fall on deaf ears."

So what's a parent to do? Maybe step aside and let someone else do the modeling.

Harris says that in 1987, researcher Leann Birch discovered that "if you want your child to try a disliked food, the best way to do it is to put the child at a table with a bunch of other kids who do like that food, and serve it to all of them!" (Either your broccoli-hating kid will follow the broccoli-lovers' lead -- or the other way around.)

According to Kay Kosak Abrams, a Kensington psychologist specializing in child and family matters, Harris may be onto something in suggesting that parents can share the modeling burden.

"Parents today are feeling too guilty, too powerful," Abrams says. "We used to have more of a community and role models other than parents. You're not the only role model, especially when they separate as adolescents. They're not going to idolize you anymore." So maybe if we relax a little and let our kids' teachers, bosses, even parents of their friends do the modeling, the kids will turn out just fine, after all.

Still, Abrams admits, "the formula is not so simple," noting that many of a child's behaviors are guided by genetic influences -- some of them from relatives more distant than the parents. Personalities are in the mix, too."

In any case, ratcheting down any anxiety and expectations about modeling good behaviors can only help.

"If there's positive attachment and connection, there's more likelihood that they'll admire us, want to please us and take in our values," she says. But "if you want something too badly and look too desperate, there's an oppositional demon that goes off in children."

Ultimately, Abrams cautions, even the most model modelers might not see immediate fruits of their labors. "Some of the outcome is going to come later," she says. "Not necessarily during childhood or adolescence."

For inspiration along those lines, just look at how Jared Fogle turned out. It wasn't until he was in college that he started eating well and exercising. He's been living healthfully for more than 10 years.

So let's give Jared the final word. "It's good to model" healthy behavior, he says. "But kids ultimately have their own mind. They're kids, but they're still human." ยท

Jennifer Huget, a frequent contributor to Health, writes regularly on the new Washington Post health blog "The Checkup" (http://blog.washingtonpost.com/checkup). Comments:health@washpost.com.

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