Each parent was once a child. And what we experience as children colors the way we interact with the world for the rest of our lives. In fact, it’s hardwired into our brains.
Research shows that our early experiences actually shape the pathways that exist within the brain (Bigner & Gerhardt, 2006). You see, when an infant is born, he has way more neurons than he would ever need; the ones that are used will stay and build connections with the others around it, while the ones that are not used will die off. It sounds harsh, but this is the way it’s supposed to work. This is why, as adults, we cannot hear certain linguistic sounds that infants can hear (such as the difference between “r’s and “l’s” in Japanese-speaking people); those pathways have died off and can no longer be used. It is also why, in cases of severe early abuse, we see children who never gain the ability to have normal social interactions.
Because of this process, the pathways that are used again and again become strong and easy to use in the future (think, “practice makes perfect”).
So, if as a child your parents constantly made you feel like you weren’t good enough to be completely accepted by them, as an adult you are likely to struggle with some serious insecurities. If they displayed violence toward you, you are much more likely to become violent yourself. This is why child abuse victims are at a greater risk to become abusers themselves. It’s also why parenting in less-then-ideal circumstances can be so difficult.
The studies agree; Simons et al. in 1993 found that the quality of parenting received as a child can predict the parenting of both mothers and fathers (quoted in Cox, 2006). Almost all parents, at one time or another. catch themselves acting just like their own mother or father, sometimes to their great dismay. We tend to repeat the past, to copy what has been demonstrated to us. I call this our default setting.
Our default setting is the kind of parents we would be if we didn’t do anything at all to be intentional in our parenting. If we parent in a reactive way, instead of in a rational way, simply responding to the pathways laid out in our brains and the emotions our children happen to incite in us on any given day. It’s a deeply set, stable kind of characteristic about a person that will almost certainly affect them the rest of their lives. It is the very makeup of your brain. It is very hard to overcome.
But it must be overcome.
Overcoming the default
That same study done by Simons et al. also found that education and various parenting beliefs also predicted the parenting of mothers and fathers.
Read: You are not stuck in your default setting!
Even more significantly, 1 Corinthians 5:17 says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The OLD HAS PASSED AWAY; behold, the NEW HAS COME.”
Read: You are NOT STUCK in your default setting!
This verse is, of course, talking about our spirits; our spirits are made new–completely recreated–when we first believe in Jesus and become Sons of God. But our minds are renewed slowly, like Romans 12:2 mentions. When you become part of the family of God your spirit is made holy, but you still may not have what you need to be a good parent; it’s not automatic. And yet, having that new spirit, which has union with the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:17), is essential to good parenting. But the mind does need to be renewed.
To truly overcome your default setting, you must engage in disciplined, intentional renewing of your mind. This means soaking in the teachings of Jesus, of Paul, of the entire New Testament. It means understanding the gift of grace, the Gospel of Jesus, what was actually accomplished on the cross. It means receiving inner healing for yourself and forgiving whosoever needs forgiveness. This is the very serious business of growing in your faith; and it is required to overcome your default setting.
But it’s not either/or–it’s both/and.
Your default setting, inherited from your parents, can be overcome by the Spirit of God inside of you & the renewing of your mind, along with proper training in child development & positive parenting techniques.
So read some parenting books. Some research-based ones, preferably (there are some crazy books out there that will tell you to do some crazy stuff in your parenting). Don’t be afraid of the “secular” world of parenting studies–just be mindful and wise as you encounter it. The more you can understand your child, the better you’ll be able to parent her, and reading meta-analyses (summaries of lots of different studies) can be essential to understanding her (see my Books & Etc page for suggestions on research-based parenting books).
3-year-olds can’t usually articulate their thoughts or emotions very clearly, so if I can have some background in how 3-year-olds generally operate (not everything will apply to every child), then I have a much better chance of understanding that her tantrum is actually a cry for help in navigating this big big world that she is quite unfamiliar with, rather than me simply punishing her for upsetting my day. It can mean the difference between an insecure, clingy child who is punished too often without proper explanation and teaching, and a confident, happy child who is always growing in her ability to interact with the world and the people around her.
Please, do not underestimate the power of good parent education. And be willing to seek out that education for yourself, for the sake of your littles. They deserve parents who understand them and have renewed their minds in the Lord enough to create a warm, secure, beneficial atmosphere in which they can grow and reach the potential that God has intended for them.
Praise the Lord that we’ve been given such a significant privilege!
What this looks like in real life
Overcoming your default setting is one of the most glorious aspects of parenting. We get to take the legacy that parents gave us and add to it, making it even better and more worthwhile for our own children.
It looks like a mom whose own mother never truly enjoyed her, who delights in her children every day, despite the inconveniences of parenting.
It’s a dad who’s been beaten his entire childhood, but despite his frequent desire to use “corporal punishment”, chooses positive parenting instead.
It’s a nanny whose home was always filled with anger and rage, who renews her mind, gives her strong emotions to the Lord, and receives his peace and joy and patience every single day, even though it takes immense effort.
It’s a mom whose parents tried to have too much control over her, even in adulthood, who feels the same urge with her teenager but chooses instead to release him unto the Lord and trust in God rather than in her own power.
It’s a grandmother who’s used to living in a family culture of sarcasm, the hurtful kind, who keeps each and every one of those thoughts silent as she cares for her grandchildren after school.
It’s a dad who has been severely criticized growing up–the parents call it “high expectations” of course–who has to intentionally notice the positive things his children do, otherwise he would only ever correct them.
It’s a mom who grew up in a house where appearances were everything–never going out even without makeup on–who chooses to give her own daughter the freedom to be imperfect, even in public.
It’s a dad who holds his wife’s hand as she gives birth–the first in his family.
Its a mama who breastfeeds against her own mother’s wishes–the first in her family.
It’s doing things because you believe it’s what is best for your children, rather than because your brain pathways require it. It is freedom. It is choice. It honors God.
What if my default setting is already great?
I want to add some thoughts for when you’ve been raised in an ideal situation and the things you would do naturally (your default setting), is also what is the most beneficial for your child.
Well, praise God that you got lucky! Haha! This is, I believe, the very intention of God; that parents would create this wonderful environment that supports the development of the child so well that the child grows up and parenting for them feels easy–they just copy what their parents did! I hope my children get to feel that way someday.
However, it’s hard to know sometimes how good our default setting really is. Ideal is a difficult thing to achieve, and the vast majority of people (perhaps all people), maintain some habits or thought patterns or beliefs that they would be better off without.
But surely not all default settings are equal. Some parents will have less to work through than others. Our goal is to improve our children’s future default settings compared to our own. If you accomplish that, you’ve done quite well.
Cox, F., and Demmitt, K. 2006. Human intimacy: Marriage, the family, and its meaning, 10th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.
Bigner, J., and Gerhardt, C. 2014. Parent-child relations: An introduction to parenting. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.