Sometimes, when walking around in my yard or living room, I sense I’m being followed. And I am, by my toddler.
As I water the garden in the morning, she follows me and does the same things. I pick a tomato and so does she (unfortunately, she doesn’t always see I only pick the red ones). She wants her “computer” when I get on mine.
This also happens in the car or at the dinner table when she says words picked up from us. When something shocking happens, she says, “Oh my goodness,” like her parents do. When I drive too fast around a curve or hit a pothole, she lets out a “Whoa!” just like me (thanks for the backseat commentary).
The older she gets the more we have to watch what we say and do. She’s a living voice and video-recorder that plays back to us our words, expressions, tone, looks, and behaviors.
God designed kids to imitate parents—or those they’re around and admire most—as a pointer to the fact that because humans are created in God’s image, our very nature is to image or reflect.
We not only mimic parents or other role models, but Scripture tells us we will reflect what we worship, either the true God or false gods (idols). In his book, We Become What We Worship, theologian G.K. Beale writes, “What people revere, they resemble, either for ruin or for restoration.” We look like whatever we look at and look up to the most.
Richard Lints argues the same thing in Identity and Idolatry.
Thus humans may be said to have a reflexive identity. In some sense they find meaning outside themselves by virtue of what they reflect…Human identity is rooted in what it reflects. That reflection will be strong or fragile as a function of this ‘reflected relationship.’ The reflection of fleeing material goods such as money or power will be tenuous and transitory. The reflection of the living and loving God will be enriching and enduring. The dynamics of human identity, however, are similar in both instances.
If imaging is hard-wired into us as human beings created in God’s image, how does this affect parenting? Below are four of the many applications.
- Live on Guard and from the Gospel
Your kids are watching. They not only see what you do and hear what you say, but they’ll say and do likewise. Even if you tell them those things are bad, they’ll reflect what they see modeled. If I’m sarcastic but I tell my daughter not to be, what will influence her most through the years isn’t so much my instruction but my example.
This is one of the more intimidating, put the fear of God in you aspects of parenting. It’s scary because we know we have sins, faults, and weaknesses, not to mention quirks. It’s not only embarrassing when our kid replays one of our not so great moments, but it’s hard because we don’t want our kids to take on our struggles and sins. We want better for them.
This could crush a parent who feels like they have to be perfect in front of their children for them to “turn out right.” Don’t take that burden on. You aren’t sinless and perfect. Only God is, which is why we image God where we can but we also honestly confess our shortcomings and failures to represent God well.
The gospel gives us the much-needed grace when we fail as parents. There’s room for forgiveness. We haven’t blown it completely and their future isn’t fated because of one meltdown in the parking lot. But we must be willing to confess our sins to our kids and ask for their forgiveness. We must humble ourselves and tell them, “Daddy’s words were said out of anger and were harsh. God doesn’t treat us like that and I misrepresented who God is as our Father and what He’s like. Will you forgive me?”
Those aren’t easy words (and my wife is much better at quickly asking than forgiveness than I am, so I’m learning), but when the gospel frees us to pursue being like God while confessing where we fall short, it not only gives us grace to breathe as parents but it teaches our kids to recognize where we are being like God and where we are not. That’s an important distinction for both parents and kids.
While parents then must live from the solid ground of the gospel, this also reminds us to be on guard. Since your children will reflect you, what will they be imaging? Our kids pick up and mirror back our actions, the words we say, and the tone behind them. Even worse, we can also pass on our sinful patterns, idols, and false beliefs. But for some good news, the more we reflect Jesus, the more our kids will reflect Jesus as they reflect us.
Parents aren’t just called to disciple their children by teaching—though that’s an important part—but a big part of our discipleship is modeling. Don’t live with fear of failing, and don’t be a hypocrite by acting one way in front of them and another when they’re not around, but keep on your toes by striving to follow and represent Jesus. Ask God’s help to stay on guard so you can show them God, and cling to the gospel when you fail.
Your Kid Will Image God…But Not Always the Way You Do
Our kids will be like us, but there will be many ways they are unlike us. From an early age, I’ve been trying to shape my daughter. I want her to look forward to being outdoors and delight in being silly. I read her The Berenstain Bears because of nostalgia and wanting her to enjoy what I did as a kid. My wife and I watch our favorite Disney movies with her in hopes she will feel about them like we did. From her earliest days, I always have a small basketball (age-appropriate) around so she’ll grow up playing ball.
I’m not alone in fashioning my kid into my image. Parents do this when they push their kids towards a sport, instrument, or activity important to them. Dads, and some moms, disciple their kids by buying them sports gear and memorabilia of the team they root for in hopes to sway their affections early on (Lily will get her Patriots gear this Christmas). While parents don’t want their kids to get their worst characteristics, they usually do want them to share their personality, skills, gifts, and passions.
The challenge is as kids get older and become more independent, they start seeing the world or acting different from their parents. Some parents throw up their hands in frustration, disappointed or unsure what to do with kids who think, feel, or react so different from them. Maybe you’re a parent with the mind of an engineer, but your son or daughter thinks like an artist. Maybe you want your kids to play sports, but they enjoy music or academics. Maybe you’re steady Eddy in your emotions, but your child is up-and-down like a roller coaster, or you’re an extrovert and your child’s an introvert, and you’re wrestling with loving them well through clear differences.
If our kid isn’t exactly like us, that’s okay. Our desire is to help them image God, and you image God in ways through your personality, gifts, and makeup and they can image other things about God in the ways they are different.
Diversity within God’s design can image God better than uniformity. Children and teenagers can honor God and image God, and yet not think like you or look like you. Too often Christian parents guilt their children or exasperate them not because their kids are sinning, but because they don’t follow Christ in the exact way their mom or dad does it, and mom and dad struggle with this.
Discern the difference and loosen the grip on molding your child into your image so you can focus on helping them grow in imaging God in light of who they are as a unique human person.
Give Them Purpose
Understanding our role and purpose as God’s image-bearers in this world helps us know where to point our children for their purpose in life. God created us to know, reflect, and represent Him in the world and to the world. When people get to know us, they should (imperfectly) get a living picture of what God is like (see Genesis 1:26-28; 2 Corinthians 5:17-21). That’s why we exist, and it’s what Jesus calls us to as his followers. As parents, this helps us know the end-zone of life we want our kids to run toward: knowing, loving, and representing God to others.
People today—including children, teenagers, and young adults—are starving for purpose in this world. Many feel the emptiness and vanity of life today centered on self or the American Dream. We have something bigger and weightier to offer them.
The Maker of the Universe invites them to not only know Him and find their joy and fulfillment in Him, but He then gives the privilege and purpose of being His representatives in the world. Through our kind words, our peace-making actions in a hostile world, our commitment to truth, through our love, grace, and compassion, we put on display a picture of what God is like.
It’s staggering, and humbling. We get to reflect God. So many people all around us have a skewed understanding of God. We won’t perfectly or comprehensively depict God, but our lives can go a small way to helping people better see and rightly understand the living God.
Your children have a mission and purpose, and it’s being a Christ-like image-bearer in the world. This brings clarity to your mission as a parent, to do whatever you can to shepherd them in that direction.
Hope in Adoption
I have not adopted children and was not adopted, but I love how earthly adoption illustrates spiritual adoption (the zenith of the Christian life). But I fear that sometimes discussions of image-bearing and parenting focuses too much on how children image their biological parents through things like looks, hair, personality, and natural gifts. While this is true and points to God’s design in children (see point one above), this is the shadow of physical image-bearing that points to a more ultimate reality: spiritual image-bearing.
Image-bearing is chiefly about knowing, reflecting, and representing God, which includes kids seeing this in parents and being shepherded in that direction. If you have adopted, you might not have a say in whether they have your eyes or your laugh, but you do have a say in whether they will reflect God as they reflect you. You can pass on the ways you image God, such as kindness, patience, joy, love, gentleness, and compassion. All parents can join in on this God-given mission, responsibility, and honor of raising disciples in God’s image rather than their own image.