In child development and developmental psychology, mirroring is the process by which a caregiver reflects back to a child their worth, value, and specialness. It’s a validating process. It recognizes a child’s emotions and feelings, and in so doing, validates their being and personhood. The overwhelming experience of joy, love, and affection present in the parent's gaze is beamed directly into the infant's or child’s eyes. Essentially, this gaze conveys, “you’re worthy just because of who you are.”
Mirroring plays a significant role in the development of self-worth, self-esteem, and self-concept. Children need to be admired, they need to feel their mother and father’s excitement and joy. When a child fails to receive mirroring, s/he “struggles to establish a sufficiently cohesive and enduring self.”*
We recently discussed this concept in the early childhood development class I teach.
Over the last several weeks, I’ve discovered that many of my students get into the field because of their own unsavory childhood. Whether abused, neglected, unloved, or unwanted, my students carry numerous scars. They want to spare the next generation this same pain, and, despite their own muddled childhoods, believe that love (and education) is the most effective tool in accomplishing this.
I greatly admire their convictions, yet, in reading through their assignments, and listening to them during class discussions, it’s evident that their self-concept is still wounded and underdeveloped. They still radiate an unhealed fragility.
In light of this, I tried the following exercise after our mirroring discussion:
I invited my students to engage in a mirroring session with God. I asked them to visualize how God sees them. I invited them to sit in his gaze.
I first explained how many of us either fail to receive mirroring from our earthly mothers and fathers, or that we receive insufficient and/or faulty mirroring. Many times what’s reflected back to us is that we’re an annoyance, burden, or hindrance. I explained that perhaps love and approval didn’t shine from our mothers’ and fathers’ eyes, but rather, revulsion, disgust, and apathy.
I then shared my own experience. I relayed how I lacked male mirroring growing up, and that much of my worth, value, and importance, has come from positioning myself in God’s line of sight. I commented that my self-concept has been largely shaped by his gaze, by his reflection of my specialness, and that at first this mirroring was an unwanted glare. It was unfamiliar, and vulnerable, and thus, hard to let sink in. However, over time it did (and continues to). I further shared how God has partnered with a select few males in my adulthood, to reflect my significance back to me. I commented that these trusted male friends and mentors have rewritten, or rather, written, the worthiness script missing from my childhood.
I then repeated the exercise instructions. We sat for a while in silence. I got a lot of blank stares. No one responded.
In the moment, I wasn’t deflated because the exercise fell flat, I was disheartened because my students had no idea what I was asking for. They didn’t know who God was, they had no concept of God’s character, and therefore, had no idea how he saw them.
They’d never asked themselves these questions. They’d never imagined that God might see them differently than their earthly caregivers.
Despite the poker faces, I went on my pyschological-theological soapbox.
I reiterated that self-concept is always evolving; that as we grow, change, and gain awareness of our past, we’re forging a new present. I repeated that their current feelings of worthlessness could be amended.
I let them know that the beauty of mirroring is that it can come from anyone, at any time; that it’s never too late; that this process can undo faulty neural pathways, and rework untruthful and self-deprecating scripts.
I ended by saying that in God’s eyes, they were priceless; that they were valuable treasure. And, that if they truly allowed God to reflect their worth back to them, they would indeed discover they were the gleam in their Father’s eye.
*Miller-McLemore, Bonnie J. Let the Children Come, p. 41. Jossey-Bass Publishing: San Francisco, CA. 2003