The Power of Imitation: Fathers’ Secret Weapon for Child Training Success

by Steve Wood

I have a bad habit that I picked up years ago at military school. I was taught to spit shine, not the polite way with polish and water, but the old fashion way with black Kiwi and spit. I thought nothing of my old habit until one memorable meeting of the Wood’s Shoeshine Club.

Like it or not, when my children were younger I had an automatic shoeshine club whenever I shined my shoes. All I had to do was sit down with dirty shoes and polish and my children would run to collect their shoes and join me. One memorable evening while I was (unconsciously) spit shining my shoes, I had to leave the room for a few minutes. When I came back in the room I discovered one of my daughters imitating my behavior – with a slight modification. If spit shinning was good enough for dad, then she felt “lick shinning” would be even better. I stared in amazement at my daughter licking her shoes. It was a rude awakening at the power of imitation that a father has with his children.

Once I consciously tried a “power of imitation” experiment. One of my daughters had a splinter in her foot and I needed to soak it in some Epsom salts. She was scared and very resistant to the idea of putting her foot in the bucket of warm water and salts. Her siblings nervously watched this first-aid mini-crisis unfold.

I had two alternatives. I could forcefully hold her foot in the bucket while she wailed for fifteen minutes, or I could try the power of imitation. I thought that if the secret of imitation worked in this tense situation it could work in almost any situation. Without saying a word, I took off a shoe and sock, rolled up a pant leg, and stuck my foot in the bucket. Immediately I found the formerly nervous siblings putting a foot in the bucket while roaring with laughter. My daughter with the splinter put her two feet in the bucket! Other than the problem of a crowded bucket, the power of imitation worked beyond all expectations.

God has made children to learn behavior from what they see. Every child is a born imitator. Your children do not have to be trained to imitate observed behavior. They will do it automatically. Guaranteed. A wise father will seek to maximize the power of imitation in his children. Fathers have the simple, yet challenging task of modeling in their own lives what they want to see reproduced in the lives of their children.

Imitation is the fundamental path of Christian discipleship. The Imitation of Christ is one of the greatest Christian classics by Thomas á Kempis. The title of this masterpiece describes the essence of Christian living and discipleship.

As Christians we are to be imitators of God. We are to be merciful because God is merciful (Luke 6:36). We are to be holy because God is holy (Leviticus 11:45). We are to be kind and forgiving because this is what God is like (Ephesians 4:32). St. Paul said, “Be imitators of God, as beloved children.”

The important question for fathers then arises, “How do I teach my children to imitate a God they cannot see?” Fathers are to be an image of the heavenly Father before their children. Fathers are to live in such a way that their children can imitate their lives and grow in likeness to God. Therefore, the most important thing needing change in the process of training children is not the kids, but the dads! Children will imitate the godly transformation of their fathers.

St. Paul could say to his spiritual children, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). Can we as fathers say the same?

To explore more of the topic of imitation, see: Legacy: A Father’s Handbook for Raising Godly Children, Chapter 4.