Children learn through imitation. This is a built-in feature of human beings, and unconscious imitation is especially strong in the early years. Since children are always learning through imitation, this can be a very powerful tool for discipline. (I wrote previously about some other key tools for discipline: Connection, rhythm, and environment).
Work with your child’s inherent learning tool
Children don’t know the “rules” of life until they are exposed to them. Rather then getting angry with our children when they don’t show their best behavior, we can consider whether they just need us to show them what to do. Role-modeling the behavior you expect is especially helpful around social skills, manners, how to treat people and property with respect, how to handle stressful situations, how to be kind and graceful towards others, how to express an apology, how to forgive, and how to make up after an argument. These social-emotional skills are complex and you can expect that your child will make many mistakes; you can also expect that they will learn them over time by imitating you.
Be someone you want them to imitate
Your children are watching you, so working on yourself is one of your most important tasks as a parent. You have an opportunity to teach your children the attitudes, character traits, behaviors, and relationship skills that you want them to have by being someone you want them to imitate. Young children also spend a good amount of time imitating their parents’ daily activities. Manual tasks such as housework, gardening, cooking, and crafting provide such rich material for children to imitate in their play. When you do these things with and in front of your children, you give them a repertoire of activity to act out for a happy and busy day!
Try not to do things you don’t want them to imitate
Remember the scene in the movie Christmas Story when the boy says “F*ck!” and his shocked (and foul-mouthed) dad doesn’t realize where he learned that word? The hardest part of using imitation as a tool for discipline is that you have to be disciplined. (About the things that matter to you.) I don’t think any parent is perfect at this because we are not robots! And usually our kids are imitating us in a way that is much more subtle than the Christmas Story example. But if you are paying attention you may have some Aha! moments about some of those less desirable behaviors and this can help you change what you are modeling.
Consider what your children are exposed to in books and media
I think there are many good reasons to limit your child’s exposure to media, but it is especially important not to let them watch something you don’t want them to imitate. This is true for books as well. I don’t allow my kids to watch shows or read books with rude, unpleasant, or snarky characters. When I’m looking for books, I consider ones with beautiful art and language, rich vocabulary, wonderful stories that can be acted out in their play, and characters with positive traits.