A young boy, probably 3 or 4, was walking behind an adult man, presumably his father, down the street the other day.
They were dressed the same, in khaki shorts and a white shirt, and the little guy was imitating the adult’s every move. My first thought was, “Oh, how cute!”
Then I noticed the cigarette in the man’s hand and the pretend cigarette in the child’s hand as they both lifted to their mouths to take a puff as they walked.
My heart sank because this little child has already had modeled for him and imitated an unhealthy behavior that has a profound effect and influence on him.
Multiple studies have shown that children learn by imitating adults.
Psychologist Mark Nielsen of the University of Queensland in Australia says that scientists “have been finding this odd effect where children will copy everything that they see an adult demonstrate to them, even if there are clear or obvious reasons why those actions would be irrelevant.”
Children don’t know how to differentiate between what is healthy and unhealthy, necessary and unnecessary, and, from a moral and ethical standpoint, what is good and what is bad. They simply learn by imitating.
Nielsen also says, “We see these sorts of behaviors as being a core part of developing this human cultural mind, where we’re so motivated to do things like those around us and be like those around us.”
So, if over the past few weeks, months or years, you’ve said something like, “What is going on in our culture today?” the answer is quite simple: Our children are imitating us, or at least imitating what they think is “us.”
We have a profound and unfathomable influence on our children. I’m not sure this fact can be emphasized enough.
Writing for Psychology Today, Carl Pickhardt emphasizes, “Parents vastly underestimate how closely they are observed and how constantly they are evaluated by their child.”
We, as parents and involved adults, have far more influence than any other source. We are literally forming the human “cultural mind” every single day just by raising our children and ministering to families and kids.
This means it is of the utmost importance that we give them something worthwhile to imitate.
Here are five imitable actions you can do in your home, on the road, when you get up and when you go to bed that can help your child develop his or her cultural mind:
1. Practice hospitality.
Let your children see us interact with others, as many others as we are capable of, whether that is through inviting them into the home, interacting in public places, serving others in tangible ways or just making space for others in our family life and prayer life, such as sponsoring a child or praying together for others.
2. Pray (when and where they can see us).
The Bible does tell us to pray in secret (Matthew 6:5-6), but it also tells us to impress upon our children the commandments of the Lord (Deuteronomy 6:7), one of which is to pray.
So pray with them, pray around them, pray often and pray confidently. Model for them where it is we run in times of need and times of praise so they will do the same.
3. Engage Scripture.
It’s one thing to let our children see us reading the Bible, but it is another thing when they see us actually engage the Scripture in conversation and practice.
Pray for your enemies. Love the stranger. Do good to those who hate you. Pray for those imprisoned. We can do all these things and let our children know the reason we do is because Scripture tells us to.
4. Love each other.
We should to do this in ways that are imitable. Show affection to your spouse. Hug your children. Make a habit of telling them that they are loved. Show them how to love.
5. Face the tough questions.
There’s probably nothing more frustrating to a child than seeing a parent or caregiver dodge issues or not answer questions.
When things come up that are difficult, it might be easier to ignore it or try to shield our kids and ourselves from it. But what a great practice it would be to acknowledge the hard things in a way that brings them to God and invites his peace into each situation.
What could be better than for our kids to imitate us proactively addressing life’s curveballs with God’s grace and pursuing peace (Psalm 34:14)?
Christina Embree is a church planter with Plowshares Brethren in Christ in Lexington, Kentucky. She is a graduate of Wesley Seminary with a master of arts degree in ministry focusing on family, youth and children’s ministry. A longer version of this article first appeared on her website, Refocus Ministry, and is used with permission. You can follow her on Twitter @EmbreeChristina.