Kids are imitators
I am the obnoxiously proud grandma to 3-year-old twins, Bowen and Kendall. Although I’ve been doing children’s ministry for more than three decades, they are giving me a refresher course in early childhood development. I actually have a computer file called “Observations of B & K.” It’s amazing the little things you’re reminded of—things that you know, but have somehow gotten filed back in the dark places of your grey matter. One of those things I’ve been reminded of this past year is that kids are great imitators! They live to imitate! They are watching your every move.
I was zipping from store to store doing errands before heading out of town. There were so many little things that went through my head that I wanted to remember, but nothing to write them on in the car. I did have a pen, though. And, I did have the palm of my hand. At each stoplight, I grabbed the pen and scribbled a note on my hand (otherwise known as a palm-pilot). Before heading back home, I dropped past to give hugs and kisses to the twins. Kendall and I played for a few minutes as she gave me an imaginary manicure. She turned my hand over … and GASP! Her eyes opened wide as she took in all the marks on my hand. “Mawmaw, what’s dis?” There it was. All the pen marks noting precious details for me to remember. “Oh, Kendall, Grandma was bad. She wrote on her hand. We should never do that.” As I rushed to scrub the marks from my hand, I quickly jotted down what I needed to remember, but this time on paper. I knew this was not the end of the story. A few weeks later I received a phone call that I thought was from my daughter-in-law. It wasn’t. It was from Kendall. On the other end I heard, “Mawmaw, I in twubble” to which I replied, “What’s the matter, Kendall?” She said, “I wote on my hand. You in twubble, too!”
Children learn everything through imitation. They learn physical things like: toilet training, how to hold a spoon, how to drink from a cup, how to throw a ball, how to do a somersault. They also learn gestures and expressions. Sometimes it may feel like the child is the adult’s mirror, because a tongue stuck out, a hand raised, or the way feet are crossed on the coffee table are mimicked to the last detail. They imitate phrases and reactions. If you listen to children as they play, you will often hear a phrase that one of their parents uses frequently. And, they will also imitate reactions to joyful and challenging experiences, sometimes posing some rather embarrassing situations. Children’s brains have not developed the filters that block out their impressions, so everything is fair game.
Just as kids mimic actions, they will also mimic attitudes and beliefs of those they spend the most time with. That puts a lot of responsibility on each significant adult in a child’s life to say and do only what they want imitated. Children imitate their parents; they reflect their parents. So, who should these significant adults be imitating and reflecting in order to make sure kids are getting it right? Just as a child imitates a parent, so we should be imitating our Heavenly Parent. Philippians 4:8-9 gives us guidelines that are well worth imitating,
“Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”
Here are a few questions to answer that will help you start evaluating what you want the kids in your sphere of influence to imitate.
Do I verbalize and demonstrate my gratitude?
If you’re grateful for something, you need to express it. We can drill kids over and over again by saying, “What do you say?” when we’re trying to get them to say thank you, or we can live such lives of gratitude that all they know is to imitate it. Since Bowen and Kendall were old enough to put words together, they have always spontaneously interrupted every family meal to say, “Thank you for making this good food,” “I like this food a lot” or something to express their gratitude. Never were they told to do that. Never. They were imitating their father, who learned because he imitated his father. A meal has never been placed before my husband and son when they didn’t thank me for preparing it. Gratitude should seep out as you deal with people, in big and small ways. “Thank you” should flow from your mouth freely and abundantly. Sometimes, the situation feels like it deserves more than words of gratitude, so let kids see other physical ways gratitude can be expressed.
When do I pray?
Is every personal conversation you have with God done in private? How can children imitate how you pray if they never watch and listen? Help children realize they can talk with the One who created them at any time of day, in any situation. When someone gets a scraped knee, don’t just grab a bandage. Say, “Dear God, Millie just hurt her knee. Please help it to stop hurting.” When you’re playing with bubbles on a beautiful day, say, “Thank you, Lord, for this day and for these silly bubbles!” When everything you do and say is in God’s hands, and you acknowledge that through talking with Him … out loud … throughout the daily routine, children will imitate that freedom of going to the Lord anytime, anywhere. Wouldn’t it be nice to instill a dependence on prayer in them when they’re young? We can when we allow them to imitate that kind of prayer life.
How do I live out serving others?
Talk about the conditions in this world that break your heart, because they break the heart of God, but talk alone won’t make kids servants. There’s nothing there to imitate except the words. They need to see what you do in reaction to the things that break God’s heart. Take kids along when you deliver food to the poor and help them understand that you help these people because it makes God happy for us to care about others. Become more spontaneous in responding to a need, even a small need, like someone needing a door opened or a diaper bag carried. Don’t wait for those opportunities to be organized and right at your fingertips, but make an extra effort (hurry across a room or leave what you’re doing) to help someone. Matthew 5:16 reminds us to, “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” Kids will see your good works. They will glorify the Father and begin imitating you by doing likewise.
Is scripture memorization important to you?
Are you regularly hiding God’s Word in your mind and heart? If it’s important to you, it will be important to kids. Too often we think that scripture memorization is something for kids and our brains are too old to be able to do that. It’s not just for kids! You’re never too old, and the impact on kids is phenomenal! When they hear you referring to scripture easily because it’s in your long-term memory, they sense that it’s important in the daily routine of your life. When you pray scripture and call on the promises of God, kids want to do what “big people do”, and if this is part of what “big people do”, then they’ll want to do it, also.
What other questions can you ask that will help you realize what kids are imitating?
- How quickly do I apologize or offer forgiveness?
- Am I judgmental?
- Do I show respect?
- How do I talk about people when they’re not around?
- How do I handle frustration?
- Do I tell the truth in all things?
There’s a recent commercial of a little boy following his father around the house, doing everything exactly as dad. The father slouches on the sofa with a pop, and the son does likewise with his pop. Mom wants her son to drink more water, so she grabs not one, but two bottles of water. She hands one to her husband, and the boy naturally reaches for his, substituting the pop that each of them had for a bottle of water. The boy was totally happy with the pop being taken away. Why? Because he was imitating his father. There is great potential in tapping into the power of imitating.
With confidence, and I have to believe some hesitation, because he knew the enormity of what he was saying, Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 11:1 to, “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.” Be aware that there are always little eyes watching you, anxious to imitate every word, action, and attitude that you let them hear and see. Live with confidence and a healthy hesitation of the huge responsibility it carries.