103. Modelling

In several of these articles, I’ve mentioned the importance of modelling for children. I’ve talked about modelling ethical living, apologizing, and a few other concepts, I think. As we think of teaching in terms of instruction – actively and conspicuously doing things to cause children to learn, it’s easy to forget the importance of modelling. But children learn a lot by watching what we do and listening to what we say when we’re not necessarily talking directly to them. Whether we know it or not, at least some of them want to be like us. So we are models all the time, even when we don’t necessarily mean to be.
I’m not saying this to scare you, nor make you paranoid. It’s not that every single move you make, every word you say, will have profound effects on children. But it’s good to occasionally remind ourselves to model. Just yesterday, for example, I was tutoring a child. I was typing what he said, and I mumbled something about how bad I was at typing. Then I remembered my role as a model, and quickly corrected myself: “No, I’m not bad at it; I’m just having some trouble right now. I’m actually good at typing.” I didn’t want this child to start generating lists of things he can’t do. Besides, I am pretty good at typing. It’s only my fingers that sometimes have some trouble with it.
I’ve often worked with children who thought they were no good at math. I’m convinced that all children are good at math. Some are better at some aspects of math than others, but math is such a many-faceted discipline that most children can excel at parts of it. But they may have heard, at home, “Go ask your mother/father. She’s/he’s the mathematician in the family.” And if they’ve heard that, they may think, I’m not the mathematician in the family. An adult role model has provided an excuse to give up, and the child now knows that giving up is perfectly acceptable.
Being a parent or teacher is an awesome responsibility. The lectures are the easier part, and often the less effective part. The hard part is serving as models. It requires a kind of self-confidence and self-monitoring that may not come naturally. It’s easier to tell children not to be like us than to be the people we want children to be like. But to a certain degree, they are going to be like us. They’ll be more likely to smoke if we smoke. They’ll be more likely to give up if they see us give up. And they’ll try if they see that we’re trying.

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