Jeremy liked to tell jokes about women – very disparaging jokes about women. His son Nathan, age 11, learned that this was cool. After a weekend with his Dad, Nathan told his mother one of these jokes. She was shocked and angry. Nathan was surprised. He thought that everyone made jokes like that. He became angry at her, and called her a name she had never heard before from her son. She told him to go to his room, which he did, as he mumbled the name again.
Children learn what they live. This has been known for centuries. But very recently scientists have begun to explain how this may work, with the discovery of “mirror neurons.” Mirror neurons occur in many parts of our brains. They are some of the 100 billion neurons we have in our brains – little microscopic “wires” that form connections which help us think, feel and act.
Mirror neurons replay in our brains what we observe others do, as if we were doing the exact same action. For example, while you are watching someone playing baseball, you are also at the exact same time playing baseball in your brain in the exact same way. Since these mirror neurons are often right next to action neurons (“motor neurons”) in your brain, they appear to be helping you get ready to do what you see other people doing. If you had never played baseball before and the baseball suddenly came in your direction, you might automatically catch it and throw it back the same way – because your neurons had already been practicing and getting ready to do the exact same actions.
Apparently, this is how children learn much of what they do. This is good news and bad news. As the example of Nathan above shows us, bad behavior is easily learned and repeated by children. It is much worse than we thought. When a parent is violent against another parent, their child isn’t just seeing what’s happening. Their child is also mirroring in his or her brain the exact actions of the violent parent and the victim parent, as if their child was committing the abuse and being abused. Someday, this child may play out the role of being the abuser or being abused or both – automatically without realizing why.