For better or worse, children imitate adults. Almost without our noticing, their childlike gaze studies and analyses us, integrating behaviour, copying gestures and internalising words, expressions, and even roles. Of course, children will never be exact copies of their parents; the impression we leave on them, however, is often decisive.

This is something that has always been clear in the field of developmental psychology. Albert Bandura, for example, a renowned psychologist in the field of social learning, wrote extensively about one of his main concepts, “modelling”. According to him, people learn by imitating behaviours they see in their surroundings, from the social models they grow up with or interact with.

Therefore, children do not only imitate their parents. As we know, they do not live in isolated environments. Today, they have more social stimuli than ever before, and even “role models” that go beyond the home and school. Nor can we forget television and new technologies, through which they move from the earliest age like true “natives”.

Everything they see, hear and happen around them influences and determines them. We adults are a vast theatre of characters which they imitate and which end up influencing their behaviour and even their way of understanding the world. Let us see more on this subject below.

Why do children imitate adults?

We know that children imitate adults, but why do they do it? Developmental psychologist Moritz Daum from the University of Zurich highlights something interesting. This almost instinctive behaviour in humans (and also in animals) serves more than just for learning. Imitating also builds a sense of belonging and helps humans identify with a certain group.

One of our biggest responsibilities is to be a good example to our children. This is because children, especially during the first 5 years of life, imitate everything they see in adults.
CREDIT: DANIELLE MACINNES / UNSPLASH

So children are really like sponges and tend to imitate everything they see? At what age do they begin to pay attention to their surroundings to start modelling? Let us analyse these and other questions.

When do children start imitating adults?

We know that imitation starts soon after birth. Some newborns copy facial movements, such as sticking out their tongue. However, this process does not mature until they are over a year old. In contrast, six-month-old babies already understand intentional behaviour. What does this mean? It means, for example, that when they see Mum or Dad coming over to pick them up, they feel good. They already understand which things are pleasant and unpleasant in their daily routine. All of this forms the basis for them to recognize patterns and behaviors and to understand that after some actions, others occur.

It is between 19 and 24 months that children start to copy many things they see in others. They imitate their parents, their older siblings and also those people they can watch on TV. They do this to learn, but also to be equal to others and to feel part of a social group.

Do children choose who and what to imitate?

Before getting to the question of whether children imitate just for the sake of imitating or whether they tend to choose what to copy, it is interesting to know that there are certain stimuli that attract them more than others. It has been found that when a child is surrounded by other children of the same age and also by adults, he tends to imitate the behaviour of his peers. The mirror neurons are activated much more when they are with someone with similar characteristics to them.

On the other hand, when a child needs to learn something in particular, he turns to adults. This principle fits in with Lev Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development theory. In other words, they know that with the right support, they can move to another level, to another stage of greater competence. But for this, they need “expert role models”, i.e. adults.

Another detail will certainly pique your interest. According to a study conducted at the University of London by Dr. Victoria South, 18-month-old children already tend to imitate what is familiar when it is repeated several times and accompanied by language. In fact, this is how communicative processes mature.

Children do not know whether what they imitate is appropriate or not

Some findings of a study conducted at Yale University are striking. Derek Lions, the author, points out that during a specific period of their lives, children imitate adults to excess and in a mimetic way. This “overimitation” occurs during the first five years of life. This means that they do not yet possess a critical sense or more sophisticated thinking to infer whether what adults do or say is appropriate, useful or moral.

In this study, an experiment was conducted. In it, a group of adults showed three-year-old children how to open a box. The way they opened the box was so complex and with completely useless and almost ridiculous steps, that it took them a long time to open it.

When the children tried it on their own, they copied every single step the adults performed, including the useless ones. This same experiment was applied to another group of children of the same age, who were invited to perform the same exercise but without any example, without any adult serving as a model. The children completed the activity with no extra steps.

Conclusion

All this data supports our intuition. Children learn by observing everything around them, but they pay attention especially to their mothers and fathers. Being their best role model is a great responsibility, and perhaps the most important of all.

From us, they will learn the good and the bad, and each adult will be the mirror in which, for a certain time, they see themselves. Therefore, let us take the greatest care over every behaviour, every gesture and every word so that they serve as a starting point for their happiness and well-being.

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