“I Want To Be Like You”: The Importance of Imitation
Imitation is often thought of as a low-level, cognitively undemanding, even childish form of behavior. However, recent work across a variety of sciences argues that imitation is actually a rare ability, fundamentally linked to human forms of intelligence, such as language, culture, and the ability to understand the minds of others. Much has been written recently of the important implications of imitation for our understanding of ourselves, both individually and socially. Imitation is not just an important factor in human development, but also has a pervasive influence throughout life in ways we are just beginning to understand.
The imitative nature of the baby and young child is so obvious and so pervasive that we tend to be blind to it, unaware of its implications for parenting. A child learns everything through imitation — walking, talking, toilet training, tying shoes, and a host of other endless tasks. Imitation also manifests in expressions and gestures, as when we see and hear ourselves in our children’s play.
Rudolph Steiner, founder of the Waldorf education theory, states: “The little child, up to the age of seven, is essentially imitative. He learns by doing what he sees being done around him. Fundamentally, all activities of the child’s early years are imitations.” How does this affect the young child, and what does he or she imitate? Everything. Every action, every sight, sound, or other sense impression, every emotion from those around the child is taken in and absorbed right into the child’s inner being. Even when not obviously imitated or reproduced in the child’s actions, these impressions become indelibly etched in the child’s nervous system and can affect the development of the whole organism. Young children do not have the buffers and filters that adults have to block out impressions. Indeed, all that babies can do to stop the flow of impressions is go to sleep.
Because imitation is such a profoundly important process in the development of healthy children (and ultimately the grown adult), every parent wants their children to have the best positive role models possible… those who have the characteristics that will inspire them to want to be (and become) their very best. While there is some variation in every parent’s definition of what it means to be a good person, the following 7 characteristics remain constant.
Positive role models:
(1) Model positive choice-making: Little eyes are watching and little ears are listening. When it comes to being a role model, you must be aware that the choices you make don’t only impact you but also the children who regard you as their superhero. Someday, they will be in the same predicament and think to themselves, “What did s/he do when s/he was in the same situation?” As a role model, you can’t just “talk the talk” and tell others to make good choices. You must put them into action yourself.
(2) Think out loud: When you have a tough choice to make, allow the children to see how you work through the problem, weigh the pros and cons, and come to a decision. The process of making a good decision is a skill. A good role model will not only show a child which decision is best, but also how they came to that conclusion. That way, the child will be able to follow that reasoning when they are in a similar situation.
(3) Apologize and admit mistakes: Nobody’s perfect. When you make a bad choice, let those who are watching and learning from you know that you made a mistake and how you plan to correct it. This will help them to understand that (a) everyone makes mistakes; (b) it’s not the end of the world; (c) you can make it right; and (d) you need to take care of it and be accountable right away. By apologizing, admitting your mistake, and repairing the damage, you will be demonstrating an important yet often overlooked part of being a role model.
(4) Follow through: We all want children to stick with their commitments and follow through with their promises. But as adults it can sometimes be difficult to demonstrate follow through when we’re tired, distracted, busy, or overwhelmed. To be a good role model, we must demonstrate stick-to-itiveness. That means; (a) be on time; (b) finish what you started; (c) don’t quit; (d) keep your word; and (e) keep going even if things get difficult. When role models follow through with their goals, it teaches children that it can be done and helps them adopt an “if s/he can do it, so can I” attitude.
(5) Show respect: You may be driven, successful, and smart but whether you choose to show respect or not speaks volumes about the type of attitude it takes to make it in life. We always tell children to “treat others the way we want to be treated” and yet, may not subscribe to that axiom ourselves. Do you step on others to get ahead? Do you take people for granted? Do you show gratitude for others? It’s often the little things you do that make the biggest difference in the way children perceive how to succeed in business and relationships.
(6) Be well rounded: While we don’t want to spread ourselves too thin, it’s important to show children that we can be more than just one thing. Great role models aren’t just “parents” or “teachers.” They’re great learners and challenge themselves to get out of their comfort zones. You may be a father who’s also a student of the martial arts, a great chef and a treasured friend. You may be a mother who’s a gifted dancer and a curious photographer. When children see that their role models can be many things, they will learn that they don’t need to pigeon-hole themselves in order to be successful.
(7) Demonstrate confidence in who you are: Whatever you choose to do with your life, be proud of the person you’ve become. It may have been a long road, but it’s the responsibility of a role model to commemorate the lessons learned, the strength amassed, and the character developed. It’s true; we can always improve, however, children need to see that their role models don’t suspend their confidence until they achieve “one more win” or “lose 5 more pounds.” We must continue to strive while being happy with how far we’ve come at the same time. (via Dr. Robyn Silverman)
While it may seem like a great deal of pressure to be a positive role model; nobody is expecting you to be superhuman. We certainly wouldn’t expect that type of behavior from the children who are looking up to us for guidance. Relax, be the best you can be, and remember that little eyes are watching.