Be a Mirror

One of the most fascinating ways you can play with your newborn is to make faces at them. Have you ever done this? Maybe you’ve stuck your tongue out and witnessed them doing the same. Newborns have the ability to mimic our facial expressions just hours after birth!

While the goal is not to teach your young baby to stick their tongue out at people, it is an interesting experiment that proves we are born with brains that imitate what other people do. Scientists have studied this with interest since the 1970s. And their findings give me hope as a parent. I think you’ll be encouraged as well.

Do What I Say, Not What I Do

How often have you told your child to do one thing, only to turn around and do the thing you’ve told them not to do yourself?

“Rinse your plate off before putting it in the dishwasher!” you command. Then you leave your plate on the table with the remains of supper on it.

“Don’t yell at your sister,” you tell your son, frustrated that this is the third time in five minutes you’ve repeated yourself. That evening, you yell at your daughter to brush her teeth after you catch her reading in her room instead of getting ready for bed. Oops.

We do this more often than we realize. We say one thing and do another. In front of our kids. No wonder our mixed messages aren’t getting through to them.

Mirror Neurons

We now know that our brains have a unique set of brain cells that are stimulated when we make a movement. Those same brain cells are also stimulated when we see someone else do the same action. These mirror neurons produce a kind of empathetic response in our bodies when we watch another person.

When we see someone smile, we’re likely to smile. If we see someone cry, we feel sad or even cry ourselves, even if we don’t know why the other person is crying. If our mirror neuron system is active, we do a better job of interpreting the feelings of others.

Hope for Parents

The fact that our children have mirror neurons can be both a good thing and a scary thing for us as parents. Like I said earlier, we have to be careful not to say one thing and then do another. Our kids are watching us. Our actions speak louder than our words. If I want my son to be on time for his first job, I must be on time for things.

If I want my child to be respectful of their classmates, I must be respectful of the people around me. This is especially important at home because that’s where our kids are watching us every single day.

If I want my teenager to be a hard worker, I trust that over the past 15 years of his life, his mirror neurons saw me working hard to make meals for him and clean the house. He himself may not embrace these ideas when he’s living at home, but if he has lived with a hard working parent for the first 18 years of his life, I have hope that his mirror neurons will be picking up on the example I am setting.

Recipe for Tool #22:


  • a parent with a do as I do attitude,
  • a child who will copy everything you do.

Step 1 – Watch What You Say

I know that it’s easy to tell your children one thing and then turn around and do practically the opposite. Many days, I fight with my kids to get off of technology and yet I’m on my computer or phone for my job or I’m connecting with friends via text. How is that any different?

Even when I explain to my children that I’m not playing games on my devices, they don’t think it’s fair. And I agree. They don’t understand. It’s wrong to expect them to do what I say and not do as I do. Those mirror neurons look at my actions. They don’t take my words into consideration.

Step 2 – Admit Your Downfalls

Let your child know that you don’t always do yourself what you want them to do. I don’t know that it will make it any easier for them, but your child is worthy of an explanation. If you’re working on changing your behaviour, let them in on your plan.

Step 3 – Set Goals

We should set SMART goals to work on the mixed behaviour signals we send our kids. What specific behaviour are we doing that we don’t want them to copy? What will we do to change our ways? Let’s use my example of being on technology for these goals

To be specific, I will reduce my time spent on my computer and phone when my kids are at home. I will do this by getting my work done while they are at school and saving house work for when they are at home.

Measurable –

allow yourself time to change your habits. But set measurable goals to decrease the actions you want to get rid of. Today, I will only check my phone for texts when my kids are home. I will only go on my computer after they are in bed.

Actionable –

replace your “bad” habit with a better habit. If you want to reduce your time on technology to encourage your children to do the same, replace the unwanted behaviour with a better behaviour. I’m going to do housework when my kids are at home instead of being on my computer.

Realistic –

is it realistic to think I can get all my work done in the time they are at school? It might be hard. Maybe we’ll have to have a designated hour when everyone is home where we can all go on our electronic devices. Or maybe I’ll have to hire my teenager to watch the younger children on a Saturday so I can catch up on my work. Make sure you have a realistic plan in place to achieve your specific goal.

Timely –

give yourself some leeway as you and your children adjust to your new plan. Maybe this week, you could hit your goal three school days out of five. Next week, you could hit your goal four days out of five. If I’m not able to hit my goal of reducing my technology time when the kids are home by the end of the month, maybe I need a better plan. Or maybe I decide to allow my kids more technology time.

The fact that this parenting job is tough hits me once again. Not only do I have to control my anger, come up with creative games with my children, and help them with their homework, but I also have to be careful that I’m not saying one thing and doing another. This is by far one of the biggest challenges of parenting.

As a Personal Trainer, I often see overweight parents bring their kids to their sport programs and I think, “I’m glad they’re trying to do better for their children but there’s probably still a mixed message happening at home. You stay active and eat your fruits and vegetables but I’ll just sit in front of the TV and eat what I want.” I realize it’s not always that simple, but it is often the case.

You don’t have to be perfect to be a good parent, but you need to be willing to do the best you can to set an example of what you want your child to be. Their brains are watching.


HB is a roller coaster father, one minute he is ecstatic about his children, the next he wonders if life will ever get any better. A long standing member of the 'I yell at my kids' club, he writes with passion and an analytical mind. Dissecting and separating the nuanced strategies that make a good parent great. He experiments with parenting techniques on his 3 year old so you don't have to.

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