My first year of university was a real eye opener for me. I learned so many new terms and I kept my dictionary handy as I was continually encountering new terminology. One term that particularly intrigued me was “observational learning”.
Observational learning refers to how we have the ability to learn by observing other people. The obvious example for how it works is by looking at what happens during discipline. If a child watches a sibling be disciplined for something that the other child did wrong, the child that is watching learns to behave. The observing child does not have to break the rule – he/she learned by watching the other child. This is observational learning.
Some may say that this is a good thing – there’s an old saying “Learn from my mistakes – I’ve made enough of them.” This phrase captures how observational learning works. Observational learning can be very good but it also has a shadow side.
If children are always learning from what they observe, we know as adults that sometimes what they are learning are not great lessons. There area often times when what children observe is unhealthy behaviour in adults. A very good example is with children who grow up in homes where alcoholism is prevalent. If one parent is an alcoholic, the other parent can often be co-dependant and the child will then observe dysfunction. Emotional unavailability and keeping the peach becomes the model for healthy relationships. This is important to know because the type of relationship dynamic that the child learns growing up is the one that they will thing is “normal”.
Another example is when they watch people show their feelings. If a child grows up in a home where they observed adults communicate in anger, then that becomes their “normal”. They have not observed differently. There are many examples. Children can grow up in homes where parents are loving, open and kind and where conflict is resolved in a mature fashion and the child learns from this.
As parents, we need to be aware of how observational learning works and to be aware that we have a role to play in ensuring that our children are protected. We need to be courageous enough to ask ourselves “What are my children learning from my behaviour?” Do we need a little intervention. We were all observational learners as young children. What did I learn that may not seem right now?
As parents, we need to realize that we are role models and teachers for our children. Everything we do is scrutinized and repeated. Children need good role models because they do not have the capacity to judge whether what they are watching is good or bad, they need adults to help them make that determination. You never know who is watching!!!!