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What Your Child Learns By Imitating You

With his curly brown hair and sunny smile, my son resembled his dad from the moment he was born. But it wasn't until Judah was 14 months old that I truly started to think I was seeing double. My husband, Larry, had just come in from a run and was stretching in our entryway. In a flash, Judah was by his side, copying his father's every move: touching his toes, stretching toward the ceiling, even pushing against the wall with his scrawny toddler arms. Larry and I cracked up, but our little boy took his workout seriously.

From that point, Judah became a master imitator. Whenever I talked on the phone, he'd converse beside me. When Larry, watching the Giants on TV, pumped his arm in the air to cheer a touchdown, Judah would mimic his football frenzy.

Sometimes we'd grab the camcorder to preserve Judah's charming parodies, but imitation for toddlers is much more than a show. By copying adults during this crucial year of growth, 1-year-olds learn a vast array of skills. "Imitation is vital to the development of abilities ranging from language to social skills," explains Lisa Nalven, M.D., a developmental and behavioral pediatrician at the Valley Center for Child Development, in Ridgewood, New Jersey.

Of course, not all children jump in and mimic their parents' every move. "Some children spend a lot of time observing and processing information before they attempt something," says Daniel B. Kessler, M.D., director of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at the Children's Health Center of St. Joseph's Hospital, in Phoenix.

Often little boys copy their fathers, and little girls model their mothers. But many parents see their sons trying on Mom's lipstick or their daughters "shaving" with Daddy. "At age 1, toddlers do what they see," Dr. Nalven says. "Gender identity doesn't usually start to emerge until about age 3. "Mimicry begins at birth -- many newborns, for instance, copy facial movements such as sticking out their tongue. But age 1 marks the beginning of true imitation, or imitation with intent. "A 1-year-old understands that the actions he's copying have a significance," says Howard Klein, M.D., director of behavioral pediatrics at Sinai Hospital, in Baltimore.

What's more, by 15 months, most toddlers have developed the motor and cognitive skills necessary to carry out the action to be imitated. Children this age are usually mobile and have some hand-eye coordination.

What drives toddler imitation? In part, it's the instant connection that mimicry creates between parent and child. Take Judah flexing his biceps. "Stretching isn't physically rewarding to a 1-year-old," Dr. Nalven says. "It's all about bonding with Daddy."

The attention little imitators receive for their efforts also encourages these performances. When 14-month-old Noa donned her mother's yellow beret and toddled out of the room, her mom cheered and got excited, "so Noa repeated her performance, and we both laughed," recalls Miriam Bloom, of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Imitation is also a stepping-stone to independence. "As they copy the deeds of adults, toddlers realize, Wow! I can do this! Aren't I great? I'll try it again," Dr. Kessler says. "They learn that they have control." Eventually, 1-year-olds begin not just to imitate but to act out of self-motivation.

For 1-year-olds, imitation follows a four-step process: watching and listening, processing the information, attempting to copy a behavior, and practicing. Language development offers an example. When 1-year-olds form simple words like baba, they're really imitating the sounds they hear around them. Over time, after countless repetitions, they process this information. "Toddlers start to narrow down the sounds to ones that make sense, like Mama for Mommy," Dr. Klein says. Then they keep practicing until they can use the word in context.

Among the actions toddlers most love to imitate are household activities, such as sweeping the floor. You'll also find 1-year-olds grooming themselves, for instance, brushing their teeth or hair when their parents do.

When your little shadow plays at being you, whatever she imitates she learns. So keep these points in mind:

  • Be a good role model. "Parents of toddlers are under constant observation," Dr. Klein says. "During this critical developmental period, it's important to model your best behavior." Whether it's eating well or giving up cigarettes, adopt positive behaviors.
  • Make safety your top priority. At 15 months, Judah's sister, Abby, mimicked me baking. While my back was turned, Abby, now 2, pulled open a hot oven door. Luckily, I caught her before she was hurt. Because toddlers have no sense of judgment, experts stress prevention. If you haven't already thoroughly childproofed your home, now is the time to do so.
  • Distract when necessary. Sometimes it's frustrating having a little imitator around, especially when she makes a mess. At 18 months, Abby loved taking my credit cards out of my wallet -- something she had seen me do many times. To keep the contents of my wallet intact, I filled an old billfold with family photos and outdated credit cards. Immediately, Abby began practicing some shopping skills that I hope she won't apply for years to come.