In good times and bad, children imitate adults. Almost without us realizing it, their small eyes study and focus on us, determining our behavior, copying gestures and internalizing words, expressions and even roles. We know that children will never be exact copies of their parents, but the imprint we leave on them is decisive.
This is something that has always been evident in the field of developmental psychology. For example, Albert Bandura, a recognized social learning psychologist, has written extensively on one of his key concepts, “ modeling .” According to him, people learn by imitating the behaviors they see around them, the social models they grow up with or interact with.
Children don’t just imitate their parents. As we well know, they don’t just experience isolated scenarios. Today, they have more social incentives than ever, and even “models” outside their own home or school. Television and the new technologies they use from an early age should not be forgotten either.
Everything they see, hear and happen around them affects them. We adults form that great theater of characters that they imitate and that will influence their behavior and even their way of understanding the world. More on this later.
Why do children imitate adults?
We know that children imitate adults, but why do they do that? Developmental psychologist Moritz Daum of the University of Zurich pointed out something interesting. This almost instinctive behavior in humans (and other animals) is not just for learning. Imitation also creates a sense of belonging, and it helps people identify as part of groups.
Are children really like sponges who tend to imitate everything they see? Moreover, at what age do they start noticing what surrounds them and start modeling after it? Let’s see.
When do children start doing this?
We know that mimicking begins shortly after birth. Some newborns copy facial movements such as sticking out their tongues. However, this process does not become complete until they are more than a year old.
Babies as young as six months old already understand intentional behavior. What does that mean? It means, for example, that if they see their father or mother come close to pick them up, they feel good. They understand what likes and dislikes about their daily routines.
All this forms a basis for them to recognize patterns and behaviors, and to understand that after certain actions, others take place.
Between 19 and 24 months, children begin to copy many things they see in others. They imitate their parents, their older siblings, and those they see on TV. They do this to learn, but also to be like others and to feel part of a social group.
Do children choose who and what to imitate?
Before discussing whether children imitate for the sake of imitation or whether they choose who they imitate, it is interesting to note that there are certain incentives that appeal to them more than others.
It has been found that when a child is surrounded by other children of the same age, as well as adults, the child is more likely to imitate the behavior of his peers. Their mirror neurons are much more activated when they are in the company of someone with the same characteristics as themselves.
If a child needs to learn something concrete, it will go to adults. This principle is in line with Lev Vygotsky ‘s proximate zone of development . In other words, they know that with adequate support, they can reach another level, a new stage of greater ability. However, to do this, they need “expert models”, namely adults.
Another detail will certainly also be important. According to a study conducted at the University of London by Dr. Victoria South, children as young as 18 months have a tendency to imitate what is familiar when repeated a few times. In addition to behavior, language is also involved. In fact, it is exactly how communicative processes mature.
Kids don’t know if who they imitate is appropriate or not
Some of the findings from a study at Yale University were telling. Derek Lions, the author, showed that children imitate adults excessively and mimetic during a specific period of their lives.
This “over-imitation” happens during the first five years. This means that they have no sophisticated criteria or thought processes to deduce whether what those adults say and do is appropriate, useful, or moral or not.
An experiment was conducted during this study. In it, a group of adults showed three-year-old children how to open a box. The way they did it was so complicated and involved so many steps that were completely useless and almost ridiculous that it took them a long time to open the box.
When the children tried it themselves, they imitated all the steps the adults took, including those that were useless.
This same experiment was applied to another group of children of the same age, who were invited to do the same, but without having seen a sample beforehand. The children solved the problem without extra steps.
All these facts support our intuition. Children learn by observing everything in their environment, but they pay particular attention to their mothers and fathers. Being a good role model is a big responsibility, and perhaps the most important of all.
From us they learn the good and the bad, and each adult will be a mirror in which they see themselves during a certain time in their development. So let’s make sure that our own behavior, every gesture, every word, is the starting point for our children on their way to happiness and well-being.