What is Inadvertent Modeling?

Updated: Sep 16, 2019

For parents, there’s no official “how to” handbook provided for how to raise your children. For many parents, much of what they learn about parenting comes from trial and error, and oftentimes that means a lot of learning from mistakes (when you don’t get the results you were hoping for).

Fortunately, the resources for parents are becoming more plentiful. The field of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), in particular, is able to offer a wealth of research-based knowledge to parents for how to increase and strengthen the behaviors/responses we want to see more of, and how to decrease or eliminate the behaviors/responses we don’t want to see.


Are there times when you think that you have finally taught your child to do something, but then you find out that he or she cannot actually perform the task in a different environment, with different people, or without some level of assistance from you? Are there other times when your child suddenly says or does something new and find yourself asking, “Where on earth did my child learn that?!”

The field of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), in particular, is able to offer a wealth of research-based knowledge to parents...

The situations described above can occur because of something we call inadvertent prompting. That’s when you think your child is doing all of these great things independently, but it turns out that you may have been accidentally giving them the right answers all along (oops). It could be your facial expressions, such as when a child starts to do something correctly, and your face starts to light up. It can even be the slightest movement, and if the child notices it, will immediately change their behavior or response. What this shows is that children are constantly looking at us, the adults, for the correct answers or even behaviors. You may not think they’re aware of what’s going on, but they are soaking everything in. You remember that Listen Linda kid? Or that little girl who thought she was Ariel from the Little Mermaid? They’re imitating us and everything they see!

Just check this video out.

What this shows is that children are constantly looking at us, the adults, for the correct answers or even behaviors.

So, as parents, how do we make sure that our kids don’t end up making fun of how we talk, or, worse, imitate some behaviors that may not be so desirable? How, as parents, can we make sure that our children learn what to do versus what not to do.


  1. Model/demonstrate for your child what you want them to do. Your words and actions have power. If you see that your child is fighting with another child, show them how to act instead. Tell them what words to say instead, and they will follow along. The same thing can be said about how we talk and act with others. If your child sees you scream or fight with someone else, they’re going to think that it’s okay and will repeat those actions.

  2. Do what you say and say what you mean. If you tell your child “if you don’t clean up your room this instance, you are never going to see your Nintendo Switch again”, how true is that? Because let’s be real, you probably play with that Switch more than your kid and there’s no way you’re letting those $300 go to waste. It’s okay to use contingencies to increase compliance with your child, but be sure you can follow through with them. That way, your child will understand that words and actions have consequences.

  3. Be cautious of how you talk about them in front of them. Again, children are like sponges and are soaking all the information they hear and see. Similar to what has been said, if your word is the truth, and they hear you say something about them (whether good or bad), they will see it as real in their eyes. Don’t be surprised if you call your little girl “princess”, and the next day she starts wearing a crown and gown. The same thing can be said if they hear something like “oh he can’t focus in class”. Maybe he will keep thinking that. Again, focus on the positive, and show your child what they can do, not what they can’t do.

  4. REINFORCE DESIRED BEHAVIOR. Speaking on focusing on the positive, always try to reinforce desired behavior! Let your child know when they did something right. Be their cheerleader when they pass a test, share their toys with their siblings, or are just being awesome. Kids love attention (good and bad), so if they get attention for all the good things they’re doing, they will keep doing more of it.


As parents, you have more power than you may believe. Again, parenting is one giant learning curve, and we will always have those instances of “inadvertent prompting.” Maybe you had a long day at work and your child accidentally breaks something so you get upset and scream at them. It’s okay! Talk to them about it. By becoming more aware of what we say and do, we can also show our children that everyone makes mistakes. But we can own up to them, learn from them, and change our behavior for the better in the future.

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