My wife had recently gone on a play date for our two-year-old son with another kid about the same age. While I’d hoped for her to be very excited about how it went, she wasn’t all that thrilled once they got back home.
The reason for her annoyance was the kind of upbringing that she saw the other kid being put through. We’ll call the kid John for ease of reference and anonymity. So, John’s mother had a busy schedule of work and she had a helper who would take care of John for the most part of the day. The helper, however, was clearly not a natural at raising kids. She’d turned John into a very subdued child by her style of “teaching” him basic manners.
As a small example, John was forced to say certain words at certain times, eg. not giving him a toy until he said the “magic word” i.e. please, and wouldn’t be allowed to eat candy until he said another “magic word” i.e. thank you. To be clear, all these are great habits, but the way he was taught to follow them wasn’t ideal — grabbing his hand and not letting him eat until he said “thank you” or mildly slapping his wrist if he tried to pick a toy before saying “please” for permission and so on.
So, my wife wasn’t thrilled about going over to their place again, and for the next time decided to call John and his mom over to our place, sans the helper.
Yet, one thing she realized was that our son who was also the same age had learned all those basic courtesies without us ever having to force them on him. And that’s when it struck us that he had done so by learning from what was done around him — absorbing it all like a sponge.
This is a phenomenon that in scientific terms is referred to as “imitative learning” or simply “imitation.”
The First Signs of Imitation
Our son, Naman, was a relatively early learner in terms of his first words, first steps, and so on. By about 13 months he’d started to walk and was speaking a few words.
We, like John’s parents, also have a full-time helper who helps with chores around the house, and also takes care of Naman while we’re at work. At about 18 months old, we noticed that whenever our helper would help Naman with something, or bring him his meals, he’d respond with a very cute “thankoo” i.e. “thank you.” We’d never gone around teaching him to “thank” people when they gave him something, but we made sure we said “thank you” to our helper every time she served us food or helped us with something. Much to our pleasant surprise, Naman had not only learned to imitate the word but also completely understood its context.
Once, we were both preoccupied with our laptops, working from home, and our helper set up our lunch on the table, and walked away, without us thanking her. That’s when we heard Naman look at us and go “thankoo” in an imploring tone as if almost reminding us that we’d forgotten a basic courtesy.
This was the first time we realized that each of our tiniest actions was having an impact on what Naman learned. It then became a method for us to teach him most things he wouldn’t learn otherwise.
Here are a few tricky habits that worked like magic thanks to imitation.
Brushing his teeth
If you’ve got a teething toddler, you’ll know the numerous pains that come with it — the random midnight cries, the occasional fever, and what not — they don’t call them “teething pains” for nothing.
Yet, one of the bigger challenges comes when your toddler now has a good set of 10–14 teeth but refuses to ever let you brush them. We tried everything from a finger brush, to a good old clean finger massage, but nothing would work. He wouldn’t let anything stay in his mouth for longer than five seconds.
And then we just went to the last resort of imitative learning. My wife and I have this little ritual of a nightly “brush date” where we make sure we religiously brush our teeth together every night, to avoid the lazy skips. And so we put a little baby stool between us and started to brush our teeth while Naman played around the room. The curious soul that he is, he suddenly ran into the bathroom, stepped on the stool, and wanted his own brush!
Of course, he couldn’t brush his own teeth quite so satisfactorily but that was the start we needed! And since then we’ve converted it into a twice-a-day thing where he joins us in brushing his teeth, and even lets me brush his teeth while I slowly count till 10 to ensure a good clean set of tiny teeth!
Taking a bath in the winters
While it was summers, Naman loved his baths. We’d have to bribe him with a toy to lure him out of his bathtime. But since it started to get a bit chilly, he started to shy away from his baths — at one point crying hysterically the moment I’d turn on the water in the bathroom.
And so after a couple of days of failed attempts, I had to go back to imitation. So instead of trying to force him into a bath, I’d step into one myself and pretend to just stand and enjoy the warm water at my feet. That’s when he wanted some part of the fun too.
Add to it a few of his favorite animal toys — his horse, his cow, and his goose, and it was a recipe for success! And now that he’s started to again enjoy his hot baths with his little bath toys — boats and animals, all you need to do is remind him of that joy, and off he goes!
There are numerous other things we achieved via imitation:
- Putting on socks or jackets/layers of clothing before going out in the cold
- Puttin on a mask in public places which he has now gotten better with
- Having his meals where the food doesn’t have his favorite few delicacies
- Putting him down for sleep at night
And the list goes on and on and on
The Science Behind the Success of Imitation
Numerous psychological studies on children and child development have shown that one of the key methods of learning for young children is by imitation.
Imitation is largely how kids learn their first languages at home without ever really being taught to speak. Naman, for instance, can sing a ton of Hindi songs simply because we used those as lullabies to put him to sleep at various stages over the past couple of years.
Earlier it was believed that imitation is an acquired skill but since the 1970s some studies have shown that imitation is probably an innate skill in humans. Studies by Andy Meltzoff and his colleagues demonstrated that infants were already able to imitate behavior only a few hours after their birth. The results have been debated in the past decade due to the small sample set used by Meltzoff and his colleagues, but whether imitation is innate or acquired, it definitely works.
Numerous other studies have looked to study imitative learning across various stages of childhood and the nature and source of interaction. Some children learn more via imitation from other children while others often imitate parents, other adults, and children alike.
The Potential Downside to Imitative Learning
While imitation can be a great tool for parenting, it can also have its downside. Children tend to absorb any and all actions that they see around them and hence it becomes of paramount importance for us to watch our behaviors in front of impressionable kids.
It isn’t uncommon to see violent behavior or other psychological impacts on kids that grow up in an environment of domestic abuse and violence.
Kids can also catch a lot of the language that we use, so using any inappropriate language in front of kids is another big No. Parents are not the only source of imitative learning for kids, hence parents today spend a ton of effort in choosing the right schools, playgroups, and so on.
This only continues and turns into “peer influence” in pre-teens and teens and it becomes crucial to even watch the circle of friends your children spend their time with.
While there are countless nuances to parenting, and more often than not it isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, imitative learning is a huge part of a child’s development. We can understand it better and use it as a powerful tool for parenting, but it also comes with a huge amount of responsibility because intentionally or unintentionally, our behavior as parents will have an outsized role in shaping our children’s futures.
This post was previously published on medium.com.
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Photo credit: CDC on Unsplash