They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery but, when it comes to the develop of our children, it is also a crucial learning tool.
Nothing creates a sense of terror as you notice your wide-eyed toddler staring you down as you scratch your armpit and then smell your hand. (Admit it. We’ve all done it once.) You know, you KNOW, the next time your child has an itchy armpit, the hand will be smelled.
To simply say, “Well, that’s what kids do,” undermines the true importance of imitation on their development. From infancy to toddlerhood, here is how our little ones learn through copying what we do:
Imitation and Infants
From the moment they are born, infants possess the innate ability to imitate. This is not a skill they need to learn because it is a skill that will help them learn.
Infants first learn through imitation. As they are watching us perform a movement or action, the movement center of their brain is activated. This activation causes their brain to simulate the movement and then attempt to perform it.
From the age of 3-4 months, infants primarily imitate facial expressions. This is a precursor to language and social development. They are learning to use the muscles of their face to eventually produce sound and emotional expression.
Around this time, you may notice your little one mimicking your smile and tongue movements. They may even attempt to imitate simple sounds such as “ooo”. Be sure to interact with your baby using words, sounds and exaggerating facial movements.
By the time they are 6 months old, they will begin to imitate gross motor movements, such as clapping, and movement with objects, such as stirring with a spoon. Encourage these actions by singing songs with simple movements (such as “If You’re Happy and You Know It“) or allow them to explore the use of objects such as spoons, shoes and soft-bristled toothbrushes.
Around 9 months of age, your little one will begin to show signs of imitation through play. They may copy you as you place blocks into buckets or throw small balls across the floor. Using instruments is a great way to teach your child how imitation can result in an effect, such as noise and music.
Imitation and Toddlers
By their first birthday, children are beginning to use imitation to attempt social interaction. The imitation of movement is becoming a bit more complex as they are developing fine motor and gross motor skills. As language begins to develop, they will begin to repeat simple words and eventually phrases.
You may notice your toddler imitating you during routine activities such as brushing your hair or sweeping the floor. Don’t be surprised if you find your little one holding a block to their ear and babbling away just like you do!
It is during this time that children are relying on us to model good behaviour. The phrase “do as I say and not as I do,” is confusing for a toddler – doing one thing and then explaining why they shouldn’t do it will make zero sense to them. You need to show them, through your actions, exactly what is expected of them.
They are watching you as you use your manners – your “pleases” and “thank yous” – and as you react to stressful situations. Even if they have yet to develop language, they are learning these things and tucking them away for when they are capable of doing them.
You’re Going to Mess Up
And it’s okay. I remember the first time my daughter dropped an F-bomb in the proper context (she couldn’t get her boot on) in front of my entire family. And she got it from me.
You simply need to do some damage control when you let slip words you don’t want your child saying or doing things you don’t want them doing. Apologize, explain why it’s bad and admit that parents make mistakes too. Remind them of what their consequences are for exhibiting the same behaviour.
At some point in their development they will be able to understand the concept that you are an adult and can get away with a few more things than a child. Until then, be very careful with the way you act and what you say around them. It will be repeated.