How Role Modeling Works: Children Are Taught By Example
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How Role Modeling Works: Children Are Taught By Example

Children learn best by watching others Children will be watching your every action even if you don't know it. Even bad behavior is normal for children who are exposed to it.

Today’s psychology subject is role modeling, in other words being taught by example. It is a big area and includes many areas of research. Basically we are going to approach this wide area of research through the lenses of practice what you preach.

Have you ever noticed how you can tell children to something over and over again and yet they still do not do it? Is it always because they are rebellious children or is it because they are doing what they see and know from the world they live in?

Behaviorism and Learning Theory

The early behaviorists created a theory whereby the hypothesized that people’s personalities were driven by actions. According to the behaviorists, humans would repeat the same actions over and over again until they became habits. This is the basic theory behind bad habits, we have done these behaviors so often it becomes ingrained within us and sometimes we are not even aware of doing them. For example, a nose picker may not even be conscious of the times he or she is doing this dirty deed. In order to break a bad habit according to behaviorism is to create a new one habit to replace that behavior.

Early behaviorists did not expand the theory to add any cognitive processes going on while we were doing all these different behaviors. Now there are no pure behaviorists. What we have are cognitive behaviorists, who combine our thinking processes and our behaviors to determine human personality.

An additional part of behaviorism worth mentioning here was that behavioral psychologists felt that there was a trigger that preceded a behavior. A signal, which they called a stimulus, elicits the behavior that followed. The behavior following the stimulus is called the response. In terms of habits, obese people will often eat even if they are not that hungry if they have been conditioned to a certain stimulus, such as sitting in front of the TV.

Other psychologist known as social psychologists developed the idea that people role model each other, in other words they do what they see other people doing. Think about the many ways you do things that other people do. Do you wear certain types of clothing because other people do? The clothing in question could be church clothing, or some freaky new fad, or did you just have to have those fashionable shoes or that particular type of handbag? Have you sometimes taken a drink at a party only because everyone else was doing it? Most young people follow the crowd. However, older people are not immune to doing things a certain way because that is what others do as well.

Social behaviorists maintained that humans mimic each other and sometimes not much thinking is really involved.

Alfred Bandura

One of the first behaviorists to approach this area of research (social learning and modeling) was Alfred Bandura. Alfred Bandura was very instrumental in the advancement of learning models. He emphasized how we learn behaviors by modeling others. He also emphasized how approval and support were instrumental components necessary for positive personality formation.

Alfred Bandura is celebrated as an American psychologist whose routes come from Alberta Canada. In 1951 he received his masters from the University of British Columbia and went on to do his doctorate at the University Iowa in 1952. In 1972 he was awarded the Distinguished Scientist Award from the American Psychological Association (APA) and by 1974 he was elected president of the American Psychological Association.

Alfred Bandura is mostly remembered for his social learning theory. He worked with Richard Walters in research on social learning and aggression in children. This research work led to the crucial role in modeling behavior simply by observation. His famous experiment is included in every first year psychology test book and is known as the Bobo doll experiment.

The Bobo doll experiment was tested out in 1961 to lend credence to his beliefs that human behavior is fashioned by learned behaviors though imitation and copying otherwise known as modeling. He did not believe our genes determined behavior. Behaviorists were called the second-generation psychologists and they opposed the older views of the psychologists and psychoanalysts such as Freud, Jung, and Erikson.

The Bobo doll was an inflatable toy that was five feet high. It was designed so that it would bounce back when punched. This experience was to test if children who were never exposed to such a toy and didn’t know what to do with it would imitate an adult they saw punching the toy.

He also wanted to know if children would show less aggressive behavior towards the Bobo doll if they did not see an adult’s aggression towards it. Before the experiment took place he also hypothesized that boys would be more aggressive and that children would identify most with same sex adult role models.

Bandura’s subjects were 3 to 6 year olds participating through a local nursery school. For the complete details of the experiment go to:

The results proved that children who were exposed to an aggressive adult handling the Bobo doll became aggressive themselves once the adult left the room and they were alone to play with the doll.

Boys and girls were equally verbally aggressive.

Children shown a non-aggressive adult role model showed very little mimicking behavior.

Males exposed to a female role model were more likely to use a mallet to hit the Bobo doll than females.

Girls were less likely to be violent than boys. The experiment did not prove that children would be more aggressive but it does show that children understood this behavior to be normal.

There has been much research showing how children are a product of their environment.

Today we are no less concerned about what we are teaching our children then we were nearly 50 years ago. Though some people criticize his social learning model. The social development of a child does depend upon the environment in which they are put into. The Bobo doll experiment showed us that a child fed a recipe of aggressive behavior would understand this behavior to be normal.

Bullies are often products of a violent household and if they themselves are being bullied by others it they can see this behavior as normal.

Some of the aggressive behaviors will be continue into adulthood.

Sexual abusers are often products of abuse themselves. Men who beat their women often were beaten by their fathers or witnessed their fathers beating their mothers when they were children.

Of course there are individuals who either revolt against this aggression and become the absolute opposite as an adult, however, many more do not know what they are doing is unacceptable. Many abusers must go for therapy to help heal from their past and learn how to behave in an acceptable manner. Still, others never learn and spend their lives in jail.

Their parents do not only influence children, their peers, the media, magazines, posters, dvds, television, video games, and more influence them. Over the years, children have mimicked such comic book characters such as Superman imitating the ability to fly. Sadly, some children have been seriously injured or even died from jumping off of roofs, thinking they could really fly.

Parents will often say one thing yet do another. Parents will tell their children not to drink or smoke yet, they do, and that is the behavior children will be modeling. Parent may tell their children not to lie because it is wrong. Nevertheless, when it is time to get onto a bus, the parents tell the bus driver that little Johnny is 4 years old so they do not have to pay fare when little Johnny is really six years old. These parents are indeed teaching our children to lie even though they may not know it.

Research has shown that modeling is more an effective behavior than preaching. A parent or adult can tell children what they like. However children learn best by watching others.

The message here is that we must be careful about what our children are watching because anything can be a Bobo doll.


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Comments (8)

Carol, this is an excellent literary work! You did a superb job. Kids learn from us and mimic us. I remember once a teacher telling us that you never call your kids names like dummy or stupid because kids see us as their role models and as grown-up experts and they will 'believe' what you tell them. It seems like such a minor thing calling a name, but oh, what an impact. Thank you for this info - it is sorely lacking for some reason today - why are not more parents realizing their chidren's behavior comes from them?

thanks Marie, yes that is true, we internalize what our parents tell us but also what our teachers tell us, and our coaches, and even our friends, it doesn't change as an adult either, there are so many people out there caring way too much what other people think about them to the point they are not living their own lives

This is such a wonderful piece of work. Children definitely do learn from us and now a days parents are actually afraid of their kids. Thanks for such a good piece of work, something all parents should read.

thanks so much susan, yes parents don't realize just how much children watch their every move

What a great article! The Bible says "train up a child in a way they should go, when they grow, they will not depart from it." It can be true for good and bad examples that are shown to kids! Children need boundaries but sometimes parents are afraid that if they are too hard, their kids will rebel and they will lose them...most of the time its not true. I know that sometimes I would rail against some of the rules my parents set and their discpline, but looking back, I am so grateful that they did. Parents should definitely read this. Excellent job!

I agree with Marie, too many parents these days do not realize that their children behave the way they see mom and dad do. The ones that do don't seem to even try and change their own behavior.

unfortunately that is so true Martha

yes Ngosi, I agree sometimes parents feel to discipline their children will make them lose them