With her brown hair and dark eyes my daughter resembled me from her earliest months. After a couple of years she not only looked like me, she also did everything she could to act like me. When it was time for dinner prep, in a flash, Elizabeth was at my side, copying every move: stirring, chopping, washing, and mixing. When she wasn’t “helping” me, she was downstairs in her kid-sized kitchen honing her culinary skills. During those years I learned that a preschooler’s imitation of her mommy is much more than pretending to be grown-up. God wires kids to learn by imitating their parents.
When you think your kids are not listening, remember this: a parent’s example is a child’s textbook. From language to mannerisms, kids grow by trying to do what they see their parents doing. As our children watch how we spend our time, money, and talents, they learn what we value. While preparing lunch after Bible study, I would often hear Elizabeth in the living room. Her stuffed animals—a captive audience—heard a pretty close imitation of that morning’s Bible lesson. Instructions included! I giggled, but my little girl was learning to value Bible study.
How does the principle of imitation apply to the goal of raising kids who follow Christ? If our kids hear us pray, will they pray? What if they see us reading our Bibles and going to church? Will they learn to cherish Christ as we do? God doesn’t give parents a “spiritual discipline formula.” Based on Scripture, parents can take heart knowing that God will use our hard work (Heb. 6:10). When we share the truth of the gospel with our words and lives, God accomplishes what only He can do—bear fruit in the lives of our children (Isaiah 55:10-11).
But imitation alone is not enough. Our kids can imitate our lives with hearts that are still far from God! A Christian parent’s goal can’t simply be Christian-behaving kids. Ultimately, our kids must receive for themselves the message of the gospel—God’s greatest gift ever. Our children need God’s grace and the transforming power of the gospel. The question remains: what part do parents play in reaching not only a child’s behavior but their heart?
Ephesians 5:1 speaks powerfully to parents, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.” That’s it! Parents imitate our Father, God! As God’s beloved children, we have experienced the Father’s grace. Our faith in our Father produces outward expressions of inward transformation. As we imitate our Father God, we proclaim His beloved Son to our children. Our children have the opportunity to see in everyday reactions the power and the wonder of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension. In the power of the Holy Spirit, our everyday life makes the invisible visible.
Imitating God is the privilege and gift God gives His children. In Ephesians 4:32, God gives Christian parents 3 traits to imitate for God’s glory in their family:
Imitate God’s kindness
When we see selfishness, rebellion, anger, envy and pride in our child, what do we think? Don’t we readily name our child’s sin? We also wonder where we failed. We search for proven methods to get them to change. But here’s a not-so-novel thought: The sin our kid’s struggle with is ours, too.
A friend’s child started growling, “grrrr” whenever he was angry. Shocked, she realized he was imitating her. Until she heard her son, she hadn’t known how her anger sounded to her him. As adults, we may think we’ve managed our flaws and weaknesses pretty well. Then God graciously shows us our “grrrrs” through our kids.
God’s kindness shows us the sin in our hearts that we too often fail to see. As we humbly repent, God readies us to lead our kids to see the struggles with sin in their hearts. As parents imitate God’s kindness, we show our children not only what their sin is, but why they struggle with sin. We help them see that God works from the inside out. He starts with our hearts. As much as we want our kids to behave, our aim is more than to simply change behavior.
Imitate God’s tenderheartedness
No parent needs advice about how to raise a selfish child. Selfishness is in our DNA. Parents who wanted to teach the truths of the Christian faith to their 4-year-old asked him, “Who is the most important person in the universe?” Without skipping a beat, their son said, “ME!”
We’re annoyed when our kids interrupt, run through the house with muddy shoes, leave dirty plates on the table and take the bigger piece first. Will they ever mature and start thinking of others first? Then we realize that, in an adult sort of way, we still want the biggest piece of chocolate cake in all sorts of situations! It isn’t just a preschool problem after all!
What happens when parents are brave enough to ask God to root out the selfishness in our own heart? We find that our Father always gives us something better than living for ourselves. With compassion and tender love, God shows us our purpose. We are not on our own. Life is not about us. The purpose of our life is to know, love and glorify Him.
As you imitate God and His tenderhearted authority, you can help your kids understand that God has made them for Himself. Watch for opportunities in everyday life to talk about your own relationship with your loving Father. Pray for the ability to share on your child’s level your own struggles and joys. Your words and actions can show your kids what it means to live and grow as God’s child forever.
Imitate God’s loving forgiveness
When kids are young, they squabble with siblings and friends. Tears and timeouts are common. When we tell them to apologize, after a quick “sorry,” they often run back to restart the game, as if nothing ever happened. With age, arguments intensify. Forgiveness becomes harder. Relationships suffer. They reason, “If someone hurts us, they deserve to be hurt.” How can parents help their children learn to forgive?
What about God’s forgiving character must a parent imitate? Start by asking yourself, “How does God treat me when I have said and done what is wrong? Does God ignore when I sin? Does He separate Himself from me? How does He discipline me? Do I know His love even as He disciplines me? How does He draw me to repent? How does He restore me to a relationship with Himself? God our Father shows us perfectly what forgiveness looks like. When we least deserved His love, He sent His only Son, Jesus to die for us. Jesus paid the penalty for our selfish squabbles and grudge-holding hearts.
God gives parents many opportunities to imitate His loving forgiveness. God can use even our bad example. When you have sinned against your child, God gives you the opportunity to impress your kids with the truth of His amazing love. He calls you not to cover your sin but confess, openly and humbly, to your child. Let them know you regret your careless words and actions that caused their hurt. Do not blame them or drag in their sin. With all sincerity say, “I need to ask for your forgiveness.”
Why do we want to imitate God? We don’t want our kids to simply change their behavior. We want them to know the joy of imitating God themselves. Even after we are new creatures in Christ, honest parents know that our ongoing struggle with sin mars God’s image in us. The more we grow in Christ, the more we see that we do not reflect God’s image clearly. But as we continue to imitate our Heavenly Father, we confidently trust our children will see more of Him in us.