Throughout childhood and adolescent years, children spend hours role-playing their dream careers, observing the lives of their older siblings, and longing to grow up. As they venture through their suspended reality, waiting for “real life” to begin, so many of their sentences are prefaced with “When I grow up ...”

But in Scripture, Jesus presents a retrograde picture of age. Rather than calling children to become more like adults, he makes the sobering and puzzling claim that “anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it” (Mark 10:14–15). What about a child’s attitude is so precious to our Savior? There are certainly multiple facets to what Jesus meant when he called us to be like little children. But one implication could be that we should imitate the way that children learn by imitating. Perhaps a psychology study on children and chimps—also expert imitators—can give us more insight.

How chimps and children imitate

The study begins with a puzzle box and the knowledge that both chimps and children love sweet treats. In the first part of the experiment, researchers Victoria Horner and Andrew Whiten from Emory University present an opaque, black box to a chimpanzee and show it how to use a stick to retrieve a candy reward from the box. They first tap the top, slide the attached lever to reveal an opening, and tap inside the opening. Next, they come to the side of the box, open up a trap door, and retrieve the candy with the stick.

Now, it’s the chimpanzee's turn. Taking the stick, the chimp confidently mimics the experimenter. Tap, slide, tap. Come to the side of the box, open the lever, and retrieve the candy. The chimps successfully copy the experimenter’s actions and savor their hard-earned treat.

From here, researchers ask the question: do three- and four-year-old children have the same motor agility, observational skills, and learning ability to successfully execute this task? They do. Like the chimps, children skillfully imitate the experimenter and obtain their reward.

But here comes the kicker. The study is not actually testing whether chimps and children know how to use a stick but rather how they differ in their ability learn socially. In the next part of the experiment, the researchers bring in a new box. This time, the box is completely clear, and one can see that there is a distinct barrier separating the top of the box from the side of the box, where the candy is held. Nothing you do to the top can get you any closer to retrieving the candy.

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Apart from the box being clear, the second part of the experiment is exactly the same as the first. The experimenters bring in the box, show the chimps how to use it by tapping and sliding, and hand the stick to the chimp. But with this new box, the chimps see that the “tap, slide, tap” is completely irrelevant to their goal. They strategically bypass those steps altogether and skip straight to getting their candy.

On the other hand, the children do something extremely unexpected. Even though past research shows that children can make causal inferences about the world and act accordingly, most all of them continue to imitate the experimenter, carefully tapping the top of the box, meticulously sliding open the lever and tapping inside the opening before finally retrieving their candy. One feels impatient simply watching them, and it begs the question: Why do children persist in actions that are clearly irrelevant to their goal?

Horner and Whiten have some hypotheses. In their discussion of this research, they state, “3- to 4-year-old children did not seem to consider the causal relevance of their behavior, and imitation was the preferred social learning strategy regardless of the availability of causal information.” In other words, children will imitate even when other strategies seem to be more optimal. It’s integral to who they are, and the way they learn about the world. In an implicit way, this gives us guidance on why Jesus calls us to “be like little children.”

Behaving like chimps

Yet while we are called to be “children of God,” our attitude toward God is often more chimp-like than child-like. Time after time, we will bypass his path because we see a faster and more efficient way of attaining our goals. With a mindset of instant gratification, we slander others to get the promotion we want, cheat on our midterm because it’s easier than studying, or indulge in porn because it’s faster than waiting for a spouse to fulfill our God-given sexual desires.

Though this strategy was optimal for the chimps, it works to our detriment because we miss out on the one thing that can truly fulfill us—God himself. Getting the candy, or getting a promotion, or getting married is not as important as how we get there. While goal-driven behavior may get us there faster, God-driven behavior invites God into our struggle and allows for a deeper relationship with our Creator.

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When walking through the refining fire of submitting our desires to the Lord, we will begin to unravel dimensions of his character that only perseverance can produce. Yes, the objective reward may still be the same, but the subjective sweetness of the reward will be magnified. We will have tasted and seen the deliverance of the Lord in the midst of trials and temptations. Like Job, who sought the Lord through his wilderness, we will be able to proclaim, “my ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you” (Job 42:5).

Imitating like little children

In the process of seeking the Lord’s guidance, discerning what God-driven behavior looks like is not always simple. But just as children learn by imitation, let us learn what is pleasing to God by imitating the holy examples that he has given us through his Word and through the church. Paul affirms this when he commends the Thessalonians for being “imitators of [them] and of the Lord, for [the Thessalonians] welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit” (1 Thess.1:6). Although our learning process will not be a simple memorization of a “tap, slide, tap” routine, we can study and apply his Word diligently, and follow in the footsteps of faithful believers who have run the good race before us. When this process of sanctification proves difficult (and it certainly will!) we can ultimately trust that “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6).

Lastly, when we imitate Christ in his love, his suffering, and his death, we will also imitate him in his glory. Through Scripture, we find the joyful promise that we died to our sin and were buried in death “in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” (Rom. 6:4)

The kingdom of God belongs to the little children. “Therefore [let us] be imitators of God, as beloved children” (Eph. 5:1, ESV).

Stephanie Zhang is a senior at Stanford University majoring in symbolic systems with a concentration in neuroscience. She loves teaching others about their brain, watching cooking videos, and worshiping with Reformed University Fellowship and Redeemer Bible Fellowship.