What Your Child Learns By Imitating You

For a toddler, imitation marks a major milestone. Acting just like you is a giant step toward learning all about himself.

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.

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