Parents often want to teach their children how to behave: to speak respectfully, clean up after themselves, share toys, get organized, be responsible, take care of their bodies and much, much more. Parents are often so intent on teaching that they overlook a critical aspect of education: the teaching strategy.

For example, some parents will yell, scream and shove their Parents are often so intent on teaching that they overlook the teaching strategy children in order to get them to brush their teeth or stop hurting the baby. The intention is obviously good—children need to learn how to brush their teeth and stop hurting the baby! However, when the lesson is taught via the wrong strategy, an altogether different kind of learning occurs. In this example, the parent is hoping to teach hygiene and interpersonal skills, but actually ends up teaching rudeness, aggression, insensitivity, impulsivity and emotional disregulation. In fact, in most cases, a parent uses the yell-scream-shove strategy precisely because he or she learned it so well from his or her own parents, while his or her own parents were trying to teach something else!

What Children Learn

The lesson here is that children learn what you show them. As it states in Menorat Hamaor:1 “Parents must set a good example for their children. They must be careful not to make any improper remarks in front of them, and certainly not to do anything improper in front of them.” Why? Because children learn from their parents’ example.

Children learn how to argue from a parent who argues with them. They can also learn it from listening to their parents argue with each other. Considering that children are watching their parents for 20 developmental years—a time when their neural wiring is being laid down, creating pathways that will determine their brains’ programming for the rest of their lives—it is understandable that parents need to provide the most appropriate material for imprinting.

Understanding that children learn more from what we do than from what we preach, teach or say, we can appreciate the value of self-improvement. A parent might get further by improving himself than by investing heavily in directing his child. For example, a parent might be very directive, always telling a child to do this or that. The child might learn to be similarly bossy, controlling, anxious and overbearing—a great cost to pay for the child’s cooperation. (Interestingly, more pleasant parents can often gain the cooperation of their children without having to resort to minute-by-minute commands; children want to please a pleasant parent.)

Think of how you’d like your child to turn out. If you are hoping that she’ll be respectful, always use a respectful tone when speaking to her. This means, of course, that you’ll need to be respectful even when you are displeased with her or when you’re frustrated, upset, disappointed or overwhelmed in your own life. If you are hoping that your child will clean up after herself or develop routines for organization and a productive workflow, then consistently do these things yourself. Do you want her to love Judaism? Then be sure to demonstrate your own joy in observance and your own love of G‑d.

Anxious parents often worry that their personal model will not be enough. They are right to a certain extent. Teaching and boundary-setting must also occur sometimes. But the personal model of a warm, loving parent is the most powerful instructor. Children want to be like that parent. Although individual inborn personality traits and genetic qualities ensure that a child will not be a carbon copy of his parents, he will manifest their lessons in his own unique way.

What Children Don’t Learn

There is another reason that self-improvement is so important for parents. Deficiencies in a parent’s behavior leaves gaps in a child’s education. For example, suppose a parent uses the yell-scream-shove method to gain compliance. We’ve already seen what the child does learn from the parent’s behavior. However there is another problem: the child also fails to learn what to do instead. When a child hears parents “fighting”—using bad language, saying hurtful things, slamming doors and so on—she learns the elements of escalation and drama. However, she also fails to learn how one works out differences of opinion, talks about difficult issues or handles herself when feeling criticized. How should that conversation about the expensive car repair have sounded?

The more skilled parents are at communication, the more The more skilled parents are at communication, the more skills their children can learn from themskills their children can learn from them. When parents themselves are lacking self-control, self-awareness, patience, respectful communication skills and other essential relationship skills, their children cannot learn these things from them. Although they may see other healthy models, the parental model is the most potent of all. What one learns from one’s parents is deeply embedded in a child’s conscious and unconscious mind.

To be fair, most young parents—those of the childrearing age—have not finished growing up themselves. Their own parents left gaps in their education. Nonetheless, any improvement they make can positively impact their children at any age, and even if they improve the most when their children are in their 20s (which often happens), children can then learn that growth is possible throughout one’s lifespan, and that people can always change, grow and improve.

This, in fact, is G‑d’s message to us. Even at 80 or 90 years old, we are expected to continue our process of personal evolution, doing teshuvah, repairing ourselves. No one should ever say, “This is the way I am; deal with it!” We are here to grow. And although we may think that we’re here to help our children grow, the truth is that they are here to help us grow.