by  Diane Wiltshire

My youngest son has a friend whose manners are impeccable. Ian is no goody-two-shoes, just a normal 11-year-old, except for these good habits. He never fails to say “please” and “thank you”; he even helps clear the table after a meal without being asked. After a recent sleepover, I noticed that Ian left the bathroom clean, something that truly shocked me as I have been notoriously unsuc­cessful in training my own children to do this.

When I asked Ian’s mother what her secret was, she acted as if it was no big deal. She said that from the time Ian was about 2 years old, she had worked with him to reinforce certain habits. The results were that he eventually went through the motions of clean­ing out the bathroom sink as part of the routine of brushing his teeth. I assumed that consistency was the most important part of this training, but Ian’s mom felt that role-modeling the desired behavior was even more effective.

Ah, role-modeling. I did pretty well with the “please” and “thank-you” stuff when my kids were young; they were great mimics. But I have to admit my own bathroom sink is not the cleanest one in the house. Chances are that most of us parents fall short in a few areas, but when it comes to the big issues, there’s no escaping the tremendous influence our behavior has on our children’s habits. Modeling safe, respon­sible and compassionate behavior is one of the most valuable gifts we can give our children.

It’s encouraging to see what new and improved habits have evolved for this generation of children. For example, I don’t remember ever wearing a belt as a child; the only restraint in case of a sudden stop was my mother’s arm flung out to keep my sib­lings and me from flying through the windshield. I notice that my own children and all of their friends buckle up automatically whenever they get in a car; for them, wearing seat belts is part of riding in a vehicle, like shutting the door.

Another improvement is in the concept of littering. When I was a little kid, I thought nothing of tossing a gum wrapper on the ground, and was even known to hurl debris from our car window. This generation of children will always locate a trashcan for their gar­bage, the idea of littering is unthinkable for most of them (of course it’s illegal in many places, too). Aware­ness and concern for our planet has led many families to recycle their garbage at home. Besides the advan­tage of recycling the materials, I see a longer-lasting bonus: the children who grow up separating their household trash into cans, glass, paper and plastic will be more likely to continue this practice as adults and with their own family one day.

Now that my children are in the ‘tweens and teens stage, I notice that they are more carefully observing my lifestyle and freely commenting on my many im­perfections. While I find this greatly annoying, I have also started making more of an effort to show examples of safe and responsible conduct (as much as possible given my imperfect state!).

Recently our oldest has been begging to get his driver’s permit and he often asks questions when we’re out driving. The other day I was chagrined to hear him say matter-of-factly, “So even though the speed limit is 55, it’s OK to go 65 because you always go 10 miles over the speed limit.” I told him that it was a good idea to get into the habit of driving at the speed limit, and that he was not allowed to develop my unfortunate habit of exceeding it.

I guess we’ll have to see if reinforcement works in this case, or if I’ve already blown the role-model thing.

Besides the obvious dangerous habits that we wouldn’t want our children to adopt: smoking or drinking and driving or reckless behavior of any kind, we as parents have opportunities in many small ways to help them form good habits for the rest of their lives. The child whose habit is to be kind to all living creatures, to feel compassion for those less fortunate and to show tolerance for people who are different, is the child who will make the world a better place, by his actions and by the little ones he cares for one day.

During this holiday season let’s pledge to give our children all the good habits we can possibly offer. If you have a 2-year-old, it’s not too late to work on the bathroom. The rest of us will do the best we can.