What Parents' Examples Mean to Children

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The example that you set is a stone dropped into a pond. Like concentric wave patterns rippling across the entire surface, your circle of influence begins with the people closest to you and reverberates outward. Each of those people then carries something from you across the expanses of their own circles of influence. Your example makes a difference.

Wanting to make a difference is human. Knowing to start from within is wise. The following quote is from Rabbi and philosopher Yisroel Salanter:

“I tried to change the world and I could not. I tried to change the city where I live, and without success. Finally I tried to change my neighborhood, also without success. Until I concluded: I changed myself and my light will change others around me …”[i]

Of all the people you will ever influence, your children are the most impressionable and attentive. Of all the people your children will be influenced by, the strongest influence is that of their parents. Your children are where the stone meets the pond.

Of all the people your children will be influenced by, the strongest influence is that of their parents. Your children are where the stone meets the pond.

Parents’ Examples are a Model

Children are adroit practitioners of imitation. They learn what to do largely by watching others. In fact, they are built to imitate what they see. The human brain is populated by numerous systems of what are called "mirror neurons."[ii] These mirror neurons reflect back what we perceive someone else to be doing, producing a strong impulse to mimic that action. Children, absent the self-control that most adults have cultivated over years of character development, lack any meaningful defense against these impulses and are likely to indulge them.

Once they have mimicked an action, children have laid the groundwork to repeat that action. Once they have repeated the action, they have begun to form a habit. In Social Intelligence, Daniel Goleman related a metaphor used by hypnotherapist Milton Erickson involving freshly fallen snow to describe how this works.

As a child, Milton would head to school early after a snowy night. He liked to trench his way through the undisturbed snow so that the other children would use the path he left behind. He enjoyed experimenting with indirect routes to see whether other kids would still walk in his boot prints. Because walking his trail was easier than clearing a new one, they always did. However tortuous and meandering his path, each successive child would follow it, widening and deepening the passage, and making it the established pathway.[iii]

Formation of a neural circuit in the human brain works like the children tracking through the snow. The connections in a neural sequence become stronger each time that sequence is followed. With enough repetition, a new circuit is generated and following those neural pathways becomes automatic.

Parents’ Behavioral Examples

As an example of an action being mimicked and becoming habit, emotionally distant parents tend to have emotionally distant children children.[iv] Children who are constantly beset with demeaning remarks instead of affection, who are disregarded instead of nurtured, who are dismissed instead of accepted and understood, and who harbor resultant feelings of insecurity are more likely to take an attitude of detached passivity toward the world. Such children have been conditioned to take an emotionally distant approach to relationships, and to feel general anxiety about themselves. So detachment begets detachment.

For a very powerful example of how behavior is mimicked, let's look at the practice of spanking. As noted by John Gottman in Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, aggression begets aggression. Parent-child aggression begets child-child aggression, which grows with the child's growth to become adolescent aggression, then adult aggression, before finally completing the cruel cycle as parent-child aggression begins anew.[v] Whether the abuse is physical, verbal, or emotional, the potential exists for such a vicious cycle.

Sadly, such violent patterns of behavior result in neural circuits forming or strengthening in both parent and child. One instance of parent-child aggression begets further parent-child aggression as the action becomes habit, afflicting not only the original parental aggressor but also possibly the spouse and any other impressionable witnesses, be they current parents or not.

But the potential also exists for virtuous cycles. Abraham Maslow said, “Give people affection and security, and they will give affection and be secure in their feelings and behavior.”  When children are given affection, treated by their parents with compassion and responsiveness, the children treat others with affection in return. When children are nurtured in this way and given security in their position in the home, they feel secure. When confronted with unfamiliar places, situations, and people, that sense of security makes the difference between perceiving threats or opportunities. It translates into a positive outlook with which children confidently explore their world, knowing they have a secure base to which they can return. Just as detachment begets detachment and aggression begets aggression, so affection and security beget affection and security.

Parents’ Emotional Examples

The imitative instinct operates not only on behavioral and attitudinal levels, but also on emotional levels. Researcher Tiffany Field has found that depressed mothers have babies who often emulate their sadness, disengagement, and angers.[vi]

Goleman described in Social Intelligence how emotions, be they persistent ones like those associated with depression or ephemeral ones such as a flashed smile coaxed by a joke, are actually contagious. He related how the mirror neurons operate within an integrated nervous system designed to connect us to those around us.[vii]

Goleman then went on to describe how subconscious neural circuits play a central role. Working from within the brain’s primitive limbic system, the neural circuits of social participants subconsciously coordinate dovetailing sets of facial expressions and body language. This mutual interplay occurs through cascades of hormones that translate the perception of another’s emotions as one’s own.[viii] Our nervous systems respond to the signals from others in what Goleman calls a "neural ballet," such that happiness begets happiness, sadness begets sadness, anger begets anger, and love begets love. All this happens through a cascade of hormones that links us to those around us. Our nervous systems respond to the signals from others in what Goleman calls a "neural ballet," such that happiness begets happiness, sadness begets sadness, anger begets anger, and love begets love.

Parents’ Examples are Powerful

A person's emotions, attitudes, and behaviors are not only self-reinforcing, they are also communicable to some degree through these shared neural connections. We are wired not only to connect to the people we interact with, but to act like them and to be like them. Children, with budding neural pathways like a blanket of snow uncluttered by footprints, are more impressionable and receptive to the examples of others.

The first people children look to for cues to what is acceptable is their parents. Your behavior sends a message, much more powerful than your words, that "this is okay to do." In the very early years when children view their parents as being flawless, the message is even stronger: "this is the exact right way to do things." As a parent, you can never forget just how powerful your example is. Children will imitate what they perceive you to do and then with repetition or reinforcement, encode some of those behaviors into their own personality.

I like to imagine what it would be like if everybody raised their children by serving as a positive role model. We are each born with the capacity to be happy, to make meaningful connections to others, to discover ourselves, and to maximize our impact. Yet not all of us fully realize this potential. Consider the human experience, and how much of its failure and success rests on parenting. Within every self-directing adult is an echo of the impressionable child she once was, vanquished by time but whose experiences saturate the subconscious. I think of all the helpful words unspoken, the hatred unrestrained, the accomplishments unattempted, and the creative passions unstirred but for positive parental examples. I imagine how many miscommunications could be bridged, how many conflicts could be resolved, how many opportunities could be exploited, and how many talents could be brought to bear through the aggregate effect of better upbringing. Parenting done well can change the world.

Author’s Note: This is the introductory post in a seven-part series. The six posts that follow will each focus on a specific parental behavior, and feature practical considerations. Read about compassion here, honesty here, fairness here, optimism here, and determination here.

[i] The Unkmown Monk Meme, http://ianchadwick.com/blog/the-unknown-monk-meme/, accessed 12 Jul 2015. References as source http://www.news1.co.il/Archive/003-D-40558-00.html and provides translation.

[ii] Rizzolatti, Giacomo; Craighero, Laila (2004). "The mirror-neuron system" (PDF). Annual Review of Neuroscience 27 (1): 169–192. doi:10.1146/annurev.neuro.27.070203.144230. PMID 15217330.

[iii] Milton H. Erickson, Ernest Lawrence Rossi, and Sheila I. Rossi, Hypnotic Realities: The Induction of Clinical Hypnosis and Forms of Indirect Suggestion (New York: Irvington, 1976), 15.

[iv] John Bowlby, “Forty-four juvenile thieves: their characters and home-life,” International Journal of Psychoanalysis 25 (1944): 107-128.

[v] Gottman, Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child: The Heart of Parenting, 104.

[vi] Tiffany Field, Brian Healy, William G. LeBlanc, “Sharing and synchrony of behavior states and heart rate in nondepressed versus depressed mother-infant interactions,” Infant Behavior and Development 12, no. 3 (1989): 357-76.

[vii] Goleman, Social Intelligence: The Revolutionary New Science of Human Relationships, 4.

[viii] Ibid., 15-16.

How to Properly Cite this Article: Brian Vondruska, “What Parents' Examples Mean to Children”, The Kind of Parent You Are, accessed [date], https://www.thekindofparentyouare.com/articles/what-parents-examples-mean-to-children.