“Our children are our mirrors.”
“Like father, like son.”
"The apple doesn't fall far from the tree."
These sayings may seem like common sense, but we often don’t pay attention to what extent parents influence their children. According to social learning theory posits by Bandura (1977), individuals learn through social context, such as observation and direct instruction. That is, children learn to ‘model’ or emulate the behaviors, attitudes and skills of others. Typically, parents and those models that are most influential are labeled as “role models”.
Role models and parental influences have been shown to be extremely important in terms of the development of aggressive behavior, materialism, and achievement attitude.
Here are some classic psychology and social experiments that highlight the aspects of parents as role models:
Aggressive Behavior—The Bobo Doll Experiment (Bandura, Ross, and Ross, 1961) An experiment conducted by researchers from Stanford University tested children between 3 to 6 years old. In the aggressive condition, each child was first shown an adult model act aggressively (i.e., kicking, hitting, or throwing) towards a Bobo doll. On the other hand, in the non-aggressive condition, the child was shown an adult model playing appropriately with other toys and the Bobo doll was completely ignored. Then, the children from both conditions were invited to play with the toys. The researchers found that the children exposed to aggressive model were more likely to act in aggressive ways than those who were exposed to the non-aggressive model. The implication of the study suggested that children learn social behavior such as aggression through the process of observation learning.
Materialism—Materialism and Marketplace Knowledge (Clark, Martin, and Bush, 2012) A lot of parents are concerned about spoiling their children or children becoming materialistic. Materialism is a tendency to consider material possessions and physical comfort as more important than spiritual values. In addition, marketplace knowledge refers to the knowledge of consumer related factors such as prices, stores, and shopping. It has been shown that family communication structures have an impact on adolescents’ level of materialism. Researchers from University of Memphis surveyed adolescents between the ages of 15 and 18 to understand how role models influence adolescents’ materialism and marketplace knowledge. The results suggested that mothers and teachers impact adolescents’ marketplace knowledge. On the other hand, fathers and athletes were found to have the greatest impact on materialism. Specifically, fathers actually serve as entities reducing materialistic views in teenagers.
Achievement attitude—Mathematic Achievement (Parsons, Adler, and Kaczala, 1982) Last but not least, academic achievement is what most parents focus on as a long-term goal for their children. To assess the parental influences on children’s achievement self-concept, researchers from University of Michigan administered questionnaires measuring attitudes and beliefs regarding mathematics achievement to children in grades 5-11 and their parents. Although the researchers did not find direct relationship between parents as role models and children’s math achievement, the results indicated that children’s attitudes were influenced more by their parents’ attitudes about their abilities than by their own past performances. In other words, it might be great news for parents! Since parental beliefs are critical mediators than the children’s own math performance, parents without higher educational background are still able to socialize their children with positive achievement attitude.
It is easy to realize that children tend to grow up to be like their parents, however, it takes a lot more effort to set a good role model for our children to emulate. It is key to follow through, be consistent with your rules, and practice what you preach.
If you do not want your children to get into fights at school, stop and think about whether you act aggressively around them (e.g., door-slamming and chair-kicking), using verbal abuse (e.g., scolding and yelling), or even punishing your children physically. Children adopt parents’ behaviors and are lead to believe aggressions are acceptable.
If you worry about your children growing up to be materialistic, the best strategy for you is to be less concerned with material possessions. Instead of focusing on the expensive birthday presents or fancy restaurants, try socializing your children about the quality time they get to spend with family and friends, as well as the memories that you get to create. After all, parents shape their children’s values more than anyone.
Most importantly, attitude. Your children’s attitudes are influenced more by your attitudes about their abilities than by their own performances. So, if you provide positive attitude and support their academic achievement, it is more likely for your children to succeed in school. Similarly, your children will model your positivity and believe that they can succeed in school.
Keep in mind that children learn through the process of observation. Your children pick up both negative and positive behaviors of yours naturally.
 A toy that gets up by itself to a standing position when it is knocked down
Bandura, A (1977), Social Learning Theory, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.
Bandura, A.; Ross, D.; Ross, S. A. (1961). "Transmission of aggression through the imitation of aggressive models". Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. 63 (3): 575–582.
Clark, P. W., Martin, C. A., & Bush, A. J. (2001). The Effect of Role Model Influence on Adolescents’ Materialism and Marketplace Knowledge. Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice, 9(4), 27-36.
Parsons, J., Adler, T., & Kaczala, C. (1982), Child Development Vol. 53, No. 2
Cindy H. Lee is a graduate student at UCLA, concentrating on Human Development and Psychology. She is currently working on her master's thesis and looking at English language learners (ELLs) and their oral language anxiety by using LEGO® as an educational tool to aid ELL students orally narrate stories. Cindy also had 3+ years of experience working with children with autism, down syndrome, and intellectual disabilities.