Teach by Example

by John Zimmer

As the father of three small children, I’m constantly reminded of just how much children imitate their parents.

Humans learn through imitation. We all look up to heroes. We all model ourselves after others. If this is true of adults, it is even truer of children. And while children will imitate their friends, the primary influence in early childhood and adolescence (the most formative years) is their parents.

This brings us to the importance of virtue and character. On the level of nature, our children will be able to grow in virtue to the degree that we, their parents, are virtuous ourselves.

We have our own role model in Jesus, who came as the image of his Father in heaven, to “imitate” his Father, to do his will. Though we can never be like Jesus, we have been given the ability to follow his example.

In Genesis, God says, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.”

We have been given roles and responsibilities that really belong to God. This should raise the level of our dedication as parents. It’s God’s job to raise children, and yet he has entrusted that role to us. What an awesome responsibility.

Practically speaking then, there are two issues related to character formation that we should be concerned about as parents.

First, how do we as parents grow in the character of Christ?

Second, how do we help our children to grow in the image of Christ?

Here are three ways you can address both issues:

  1. Spend time with your Father

For you: We need to spend time with God in prayer, opening ourselves to his grace and asking him to reveal which images we hold that are not of him. Sincerely ask Jesus to help you take on his image in a deeper and more real way. “Prayer restores man to God’s likeness” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2572).

For your children: There is a vital need for parents to spend time (both quality and quantity) with their children. One of the key identity-forming factors is a relationship with older people, especially fathers and mothers. Generations ago, sons worked with their fathers in the field, and daughters were in the home with their mothers. While we can’t go back to that time, we can make every effort to spend time with our children.

  2. Fill the mind with Christ-like images

For you: Meditate upon the Scriptures. Read the lives of the saints. Fill your mind with noble images of people with a Christ-like character. The more you fill your mind with godly images, the easier it will be to follow those images.

For your children: In addition to reading the lives of the saints, which is particularly helpful for children, be aware of what images fill children’s minds. Our society is constantly throwing images at our children – from movies and music to athletics and advertisements. Choose wisely what images your children are exposed to throughout the day.

  3. Grow in virtue

For you: Reflect on your vices and where you need to grow in virtue. Pick a single virtue (don’t try to fix everything at once) and actively try to grow in it. Ask someone to hold you accountable to this. Be very practical.

For your children: A great way to help young children grow in virtue is through the practice of etiquette. Practicing kindness by saying please and thank you will help the same child to practice kindness in other ways. Manners are the guardians of virtue, and as a side benefit, well-mannered children create a more hospitable home! As children grow older and enter into adolescence, you can help them develop more “significant” virtues.

This article is excerpted from Lay Witness Magazine (May/June 2004).


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