Just as children show some of the physical characteristics inherited from their own family tree, certain behavioral and emotional characteristics will also be passed on. And like all of us, our children will add to their unique genetic makeup through learning. Both through formal schooling as well as the experiences of life, we add much to our understanding of the world around us and how we deal with it.

One of the most important areas of learning for children is the family home. It is here where we can teach and encourage our children to behave in ways that will make life easier and happier for both children and parents. But we also need to be aware that children can learn unintentional lessons at home.

Of obvious concern to parents are the things children learn from watching the behavior of others. At home, parents, sisters and brothers need to monitor their own behavior to ensure that younger children do not learn, for example, to yell at people from watching mum or big brother do the same. If you as a parent frequently show anger and frustration in front of your child, they might eventually learn to behave in a similar way. Children who shout and throw temper tantrums when frustrated with a game they are playing may have unintentionally been “taught” to do this.

Sometimes we may not be aware that we are rewarding certain behaviors in our children that we would not want to encourage. These “accidental” rewards can stem from something as simple as a smile. For example, if you react with a laugh the first time your child says a swear word in front of you it may encourage your child to try out the word again. Alternatively, if you spend too much time reasoning with your young child in attempting to explain your disapproval of swearing you are providing them with a lot of rewarding attention.

Smiles, laughs, and attention are all powerful social rewards. And like adults, children are strongly affected by such rewards. They quickly learn that their behavior has an effect on others, and if they see a positive effect from their actions they are likely to keep up that behavior.

Similarly, both you and your child can also learn undesirable behavior through what is called an “escalation trap.” This can occur when a child asks for something, such as a biscuit just before dinner, is told no but keeps on asking in a louder voice. If the child continues to ask for the biscuit, getting louder and more demanding, the harassed parent may eventually give in to gain some peace.

In this case, the child has been rewarded for being demanding and the parent has been rewarded for giving in — at least in the short term. The rewards mean the behavior is likely to occur again.

The reverse case also applies. When you ask your child to do something and they resist, you will need to give that instruction again. If you find yourself having to keep repeating the instruction, your frustration may raise the level of your voice until you eventually angrily demand that your child do as you ask by the count of three, or else! Your child will probably finally get the message. Unfortunately, the message that they may have learned is that you are only serious when you yell. The result — next time your child is told to do something they might wait until you yell before reacting. And you may make an angry demand because you have learnt that that is how you can get your child’s attention.

Just being aware of how you and your child can affect each other’s behavior is a good starting point toward reducing learned misbehavior at home. Think about the types of behavior you would like to see in yourself and your child and try and make sure you put those behaviors into practice.

Ultimately, we cannot as parents totally control the many behavioral influences that our children will come across during their growing years, but we can work hard to ensure the things they learn at home are those that we would wish them to learn.

Parenting Tip

Children may learn to misbehave if they feel they have been ignored when they behave. The attention they receive when they are naughty is seen as better than an absence of attention no matter what their behavior. It is therefore important to sometimes reward children with praise and attention when they are not misbehaving.

Dr. Matthew Sanders is a clinical psychologist at the University of Queensland in Australia and founder of the Triple P - Positive Parenting Program.