I was working in the kitchen fixing dinner. My 3-year-old son, busy at the kitchen table with a project, was singing a little song to himself. Because I was preoccupied, it took some time before I tuned in to the words of the song: O ya su mi na sai, mi na san. . .
Though the melody was familiar, the words were foreign. I finally figured them out. They came from a children’s tape of Japanese songs that I had recently bought. (They mean, “Good night, everyone.”) Listening repeatedly to the tape, my son had memorized one of the songs and was singing it to himself. Just then, the singing stopped.
“What am I singing?”
How impressionable children are! How effortlessly they adapt to their environment. Their minds, their intellects, yes, even their character are influenced by what they see and hear. Language acquisition illustrates this concept marvelously. My son isn’t growing up in a bilingual home; however, by habitually listening to the sounds of this Japanese song, he had learned them well enough to mimic them. True, he didn’t understand them. But he could say them, which is the first step toward fluency.
Of course, children internalize far more than words. Involuntarily, they pick up the idiosyncrasies of their parents’ behavior, as well. Experts call this process “incidental learning”‹a process by which children identify with and imitate their parents.
This process is well-illustrated by a story author and speaker Cynthia Tobias tells about an armless mother raising an infant son. The mother had adapted to her disability by deftly using her feet. One day, while traveling on an airplane, a fellow passenger observed the mother as she prepared her son for a bottle. She gave her son the bottle with her feet, then settled into her seat. Intrigued, the fellow passenger commented upon the difficult circumstances the woman faced. She turned to the gentleman and said, “It wouldn’t be so bad, except for one thing.” She gestured to the child. “See?” Her son held his bottle with his feet, perfectly healthy arms lying useless at his side.
The axiom “A child’s first teachers are his parents” should challenge any parent who genuinely cares about how his or her children are being trained. It certainly does me. Some time ago, my husband and I experienced a particularly difficult time in our marriage. We were in the midst of transition, under a lot of stress, physically exhausted and emotionally depleted. I regret to say we allowed our personal problems to escalate to the point where the tension became evident to our children. They heard us fight and witnessed our hostility. Eventually our problems lessened, but the damage remains: We’re still dealing with outbursts of temper in our kids. They learned from us well.
We teach who we are. But our natural tendency is to rely on other influences‹teachers at school or church, books, the media‹to shape our children’s character. The mistake comes when we rely disproportionately on those less significant influences and ignore the monumental impact of our own.
How, though, can parents be effective role models when they themselves are imperfect? Deuteronomy 6:6-7 clues us in: “These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.”
We model from the reality in our hearts.
Hopefully, what’s in our hearts has something to do with the nature and character of God. If not, then our first order of business is getting right with Him. Do our children know how much we rely on the Lord? Do they hear us apologize when we blow it or ask forgiveness when we overreact? Do they perceive tenderness and affection between their parents? Are we respectful to the police officer who pulled us over? Do they witness us returning the extra $5 that the clerk accidentally gave us? Effective, positive role modeling is based not upon our flawless perfection but upon our obedient response to God’s commandments: doing what we know pleases Him.
We model with our words.
Role modeling involves more than just sending them off to Sunday school. We need to get them thinking‹indoctrinate them, if you will. This takes profound commitment and effort on our part. How diligent are we in grasping the complexities of Scripture? Do we study the Bible or sit back and let the pastor do all the instruction? How sharp are we when it comes to Scripture memory?
Our perseverance will rub off on our kids. I know a couple who devised a way to help their children memorize Scripture. The father illustrated Bible verses, and his young children have memorized them by “reading” the pictures. Today, not only do these kids have a strong grasp of the Bible, but this entrepreneurial couple has also begun to market their illustrated memory verse cards.
We model with our time.
The prevailing jargon in child development circles is “teachable moments,” those occasions when a child is in a heightened state of awareness and receptive to learning. Teachable moments come unexpectedly and are likely to disappear as quickly as they appear. The truth is, effective role modeling won’t happen on the fly.
We need to slow down, if for no other reason than simply to be with our kids more often: sitting, walking, lying down, getting up. Then, when those teachable moments come, we’re nearby, available, in tune, not weaving in and out of traffic, late to another appointment or dropping them off with the sitter.
As I think about my son singing the words of a song that intellectually meant nothing to him, I find myself wondering, Have I set before my children a model of Christlikeness that will imprint itself upon their character over time? I want my children first to hear, then internalize, then speak the language of their Savior, even if they don’t understand it at first. Then when they ask me, “Mom? What am I singing?” I’ll have an answer: “You are singing the words of Christ. You are behaving as He behaved. You are living as He lived.”