My two-year old grandson has a fascination for shoes. He loves to discard his own and don his father’s size twelve army boots. He proudly parades about the house and squeals, “Just like Daddy!”
His father remarked one day, “I guess I better be careful where I take those boots!”
Whether what is before them is pleasing to God or not, children will mirror what they see. Like parrots, they repeat every word they hear even though the meanings may be beyond their comprehension. When our children were younger, my husband, Steve, and I belonged to a community theater organization. While giving our three-year old a bath, I was surprised to hear him reciting every word from The Wizard of Oz, the play our group was currently rehearsing. He spoke every line exactly as the actors portrayed the characters down to the screeching laugh of the Wicked Witch from the West (me!).
My husband Steve has always been sensitive to the reality that parents are unwitting models. During the early days of parenting, he wanted to be sure the children ate their vegetables. No matter what was served he took a hefty helping and relished in the delicacy. He was so convincing even I believed that spinach was his favorite food. I faithfully served him the leafy green delight every week for the next five years until he gained the courage to clue me in on his act.
Parents lead by example and a child’s moral legacy will be influenced more by what the parent does and speaks than any other influence. Human services counselors call this “parent modeling.” As a social worker, I tried to help parents understand this concept. One beleaguered dad asked for help in teaching his son not to swear at school. I explained that parents best teach their children proper language by speaking properly themselves. I counseled him that children invariably copy what they see their parents do and what they hear their parents say. The dad lifted his hands up in the air as if in defeat. “I’m in trouble. I don’t want my kids to be anything like me!”
Most parents don’t want their children to imitate their negative habits, but many are unwilling to change their own behaviors to provide an example for the child to follow. When the child begins emulating the undesired traits, the parent becomes angry with the child who only wants to be “just like dear old dad!”
Darryl obtained custody of his teenage daughter after the child’s mother was found to be a neglectful parent. Although he had little contact with the girl over the years, he agreed to have her move in with him rather than be turned over to the foster care system. He called me nearly daily to complain that his daughter was mouthy, disrespectful, and disobedient. During a home visit while Darryl vociferously berated his offspring, I quietly observed this dad while he pounded the countertop and bellowed his displeasure in colorful language. After he had a chance to vent for a few minutes, I looked him squarely in the eye and reminded him, “Well, Darryl. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Does it?”
Darryl began to realize that his daughter, who loved him very much, was mimicking his behavior. As he learned to quiet his temper and demonstrate a respect for others, his daughter’s behaviors improved. He modeled the type of behavior he desired his daughter to follow.
While still in high school, our daughter took modeling lessons from a professional modeling agency. For six months we made the hour trek to Ottawa where she learned the grueling runway walk. The model’s walk is achieved by protruding the abdomen forward while forcing the head and torso slightly behind. Mastery is dependent upon absolute attention and focus while training the muscles to sustain an unnatural body position. The model keeps her eyes fixed forward, looking neither to the right nor to the left. Parents need that same attentiveness.
If we want to know what we look like or what we sound like, we need only listen to our small children at play. They mimic our actions and speech more expertly than the greatest stage actors. What do our children hear? Do they hear praise or gossip? Do they hear singing or screaming? Do they hear prayers or curses? Do they hear whining or confidence? What do they see? Do they see self-control or anger? Do they see faith in action or anxious wanderings? Do they see generosity toward others or miserliness?
Just as God wants His children to model their behavior according to His holiness, parents have a responsibility to encourage right behavior in their children through example. God speaks to us and deals with us in the same manner he wants us to deal with our own children. He has given us His son as an example and His Holy Spirit to help remind us when we need a little nudge in the right direction. Our Christian walk becomes perfected as we keep our attention focused on Christ. Because we love Him, we want to be more like Him. We want to trudge along wearing His boots. By daily Bible reading, prayer, and fellowship with like minded believers, we will become more and more like our Father. And as we grow closer to God, our earthly walk will be more in tune with what we hope our children will pattern.
Our walk will testify to what we believe. Our speech will reflect what is in our hearts. The choice of what image we project to our children is up to us. We can be certain that our little mimics will want to grow up just like us.
Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting (Psalms 139:23-24 NIV).
Linda Rondeau is the author of America II: The Reformation (Trestle Press) and The Other Side of Darkness (Pelican Ventures) which won the 2012 Selah Award for best debut novel. She is the editor of Geezer Guys and Gals blog, a multi-author blog for and by seniors and also blogs at This Daily Grind.