We’ve all done it.
Our kids misbehave. Then, we get angry. We raise our voice a bit to get our kids’ attention. We furrow our brow and perhaps put our hands on our hips (which makes us look even more imposing). We forcefully intervene to deal out discipline.
Meanwhile, our kids watch all this and their brains go into action. You see, God gave our little kiddos (and us too) these little learning machines called “mirror cells”. These mirror cells literally reflect what they see by way of both action and emotion. After all, kids are built to learn from the grown-ups who care for them. When mom or dad gets intense, the mirror cells stand at attention, ready to reflect what they see, and learn how to act.
So naturally kids in some shape or fashion mirror the facial expression, energy level, tone of voice, and general intensity of their parents – unless they are too afraid. (If they have learned that mirroring leads them to more pain, not less, they tend to withdraw in fear.) Usually, though, kids come to learn that in some fashion they get their needs met by mirroring what they see and then entering into power struggles with their parents. Maybe it’s just the attention they want. Or maybe some sense of control. Or maybe they’re doing the best they can to feel heard or validated. Regardless, what happens next is almost universal.
The parents punish their kids. Yep. The kids do exactly what God created them to do by mirroring their parents, and then they get sent to time-out, lose privileges, even get spanked — for essentially copying their parents.
Who needs the time-out here?
Parents often cite the verses in Hebrews about discipline being painful — but these verses are not about parenting. The verses are about mature believers submitting themselves to the discipline of looking inward and confessing the sin that so easily entangles.
The reality is that when we punish our kids for copying us, we confuse them. And worse, we can place hard bricks of unbelief on their hearts.
If you want to see what your kids’ mirror cells are attending to, ask yourself this question: “What do my kids see in me when I address their misbehavior? Is what the see what I’d like them to see? Is what they see what I’d want to see if I messed up?”
Better yet, ask your kids what they see. Keep in mind, however, that they may be afraid to answer truthfully, especially if they fear getting in more trouble. So only ask if you know the kids feel really safe with you, and in a way that mirrors grace when mistakes have been made. If you feel like you’re not at a place where you can ask, then maybe take some time to reflect on those questions yourself and pray about being a safer parent.
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