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Editorials for Clinical Practice

CHADIS Co-Director and President, Dr. Barbara Howard is a regular contributor to the Behavioral Consult column of Pediatric News and an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.


Dr. Howard is a developmental-behavioral pediatrician trained by Dr. T. Berry Brazelton at Harvard University. She is a national speaker on child behavior problems and is a past president of the Society for Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. She was a contributing author for Bright Futures™, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Primary Care (DSM-PC) and Bright Futures in Practice: Mental Health and has served on national committees of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Do as I say, not as I do! A futile plea.

Barbara Howard, MD

I am constantly amazed when parents come in complaining about their child’s nail-biting or irritable attitude “no matter how many times I tell her” as they do these same things in front of me!


We have not evolved that far from our nonverbal ancestors to expect that words will speak louder than actions. Looking closely, you can see even very young infants gazing closely at their parents, then mirroring their facial expressions a few minutes later (because of slower processing). Mirroring is probably the correct word for this as the mirror neuron system of the brain has as its primary and crucial function allowing humans to copy what they see in others.


Children look to model, especially those who are slightly older and more adept than they are. Older siblings bask in this adoration at times and squeal in frustration at other times that their younger sister is “mocking” them by copying their speech and actions. When children are picking up serious negative behaviors from siblings or peers, particularly in adolescence, we need to coach parents to take action.


But watching parents is the most powerful or “salient” stimulus for learning. Some theorize that the long period of childhood evolved to allow children to learn the incredible amount of information necessary to live independently in our complex culture. This learning begins very early and requires close contact and careful observation of the minute details of how the parent survives every day.


Eating is a great primitive example of why children must model their parents. How do animals know which plants are poisonous? By watching others eat and spit, choke, or vomit. Entire families have nonpreferred foods passed on by modeling refusal as well as lack of exposure on the table. Conversely, picky eaters need to observe others, preferably admired peers and parents, eating those vegetables. (Tasting is also necessary, but that’s a topic for another day!) It is worth asking about family meals, without the distraction of a TV, as they are key moments to model nutritious eating for their lifetime.


In “underdeveloped” countries, infants are naturally carried everywhere and observing constantly. In our “developed” country, many infants spend hours each day at daycare, modeling their caregivers or watching media examples of people interacting, which may not be the model's parents would consciously choose. Parents often ask us about childcare, anxious about the extremely rare threat of abduction, when we should instead be advising them about what models they want for their children during this critical learning period.


Emotion cueing is a crucial component of modeling and an untaught constant of typical parent-child interaction. Crawling infants placed on a clear surface over a “visual cliff” that appeared to be a sudden precipice look to the parent’s affect to decide how to act. The mother was instructed to show fear or joy when her baby reached the apparent danger and looked up for a warning. When fear was shown, the infants backed off and cried. When joy was shown, the baby crawled gaily across the “cliff.” For parents who do not come by signaling confidence naturally but want to model this for their children, I advise they “fake it until you make it!”


and remember that the adverse model may not be in the room, requiring us to ask, “What other adult models does he see? Parents are instructing their progeny adaptive child of an ignoring parent may demand information by crying, clinging, fighting with siblings, or hitting the parent. They are desperate for the parental attention to teach them and keep them safe. A more passive child may become increasingly inhibited in their exploration of the world. We need to consider possible modeling failures when such child reaction patterns are the complaintin how to feel and act in every situation, whether they know it or not. Confident parents model bravery; kind parents model compassion; flexible parents model resilience; patient parents model tolerance; anxious parents model caution; angry parents model aggression. Ignoring parents (think: on their cellphone, distracted, depressed, inebriated, or high) leave their children to feel confused and insecure. An ”


Studies have shown that infants learn resilience when experiencing “mistakes” in parent-infant interaction; learning how to tolerate and repair an interaction that is not perfect. This is really good news for parents who feel that they must be perfect models for their children! For parents of anxious or obsessive children, I sometimes prescribe making mistakes and saying “Oh well,” as well as rewarding the child when they can say “Oh well” themselves. No child is too old to benefit from observing a parent apologize sincerely for a mistake.


Language is modeled, right down to the accent. But when parents complain about their child cussing, raising their voice in anger, having an “attitude,” or “talking back,” it is worth asking (parent and child) “Where do you think they/you have heard talk like that?” It may be childcare providers, peers, TV, video games or online media (all of which may warrant a change), but it also may reflect interactions at home.


Children make stronger memories when emotions are high as these may signal danger, making recall more salient to survival. This salience helps explain the lasting detriments to learning and health of growing up with psychological abuse, marital discord, partner violence, mental illness, or criminal behavior (among the Adverse Childhood Experiences). Such experiences cause stress and a sense of the world as a dangerous place but also become models for the child’s own later relationships as adults. While unavoidable, they can be buffered by parents’ explaining them and providing alternative positive modeling.


Watching the parent conduct their craft, a key component of apprenticeship and family businesses in the past, has been replaced by YouTube and avatars for learning physical skills. But “modeling the process” of pride in craftsmanship, persistence in a task, and recovering and starting over when things go awry are omitted from training videos. These are good reasons to assure that parents do chores, crafts, cooking, or camping with their children as some things will surely go wrong, giving parents the chance to model resilience and problem-solving!



Although teens may protest conversations and activities, they are watching their parents for how to be a spouse, a neighbor, a friend, a leader, a citizen. Parents, who may be cutting their teens loose, need to continue to expect/require participation in family meals and outings. Those are opportunities to model adult-level interactions with each other and with the community as well as to talk about their activities at work, in volunteering, in charity, and in religious practice. The moral development of the adolescent is shaped by what they see to the degree that when parents state one moral code but violate it themselves (for example, cheating on taxes, running red lights), the teen is less likely to follow the principles long term that the parents have verbalized.


Parents often relate to us as though we were their own parents. While this “projection” can interfere with disclosure on touchy subjects, it is also an opportunity for us to model ways of relating and reacting from sympathizing with the 4-year-old screaming about vaccines to asking an 8-year-old why he thinks his parents are getting a divorce.


Parenting (and being a pediatrician) is an opportunity to enjoy reliving your youth or to get a “do over” of parts you would like to have different for your child. Playfulness and silliness model joy for the child that can last a lifetime.



Dr. Howard’s contribution to this publication is as a paid expert to Frontline Medical

Communications. E-mail her at


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