Ever watch your child pretend that a shoe is a cell phone and use it to order her imaginary husband to pick up a carton of milk on the way home? Having a preschooler can be like looking in a mirror: You see all the details of your own behavior reflected right back at you.
Your little copycat is hardwired to act this way -- imitation is one of the main building blocks of learning, points out Lawrence Cohen, Ph.D., author of Playful Parenting. It's how your child masters every kind of life skill from brushing her teeth to understanding and using language to being gentle with the dog. "The usual sequence is that a child observes something that she sees another person do, imitates it exactly, then transforms it in some way and makes it her own," says Dr. Cohen.
Imitation goes hand in hand with a burst in dramatic play. Your kid's imagination is limitless, and she's always trying new things. She takes everything she sees, hears, and experiences and uses it in her play and in her life." Your job is to provide her with positive examples to copy and to help her make sense of what she picks up from friends and TV. Read on for tips to help your little mimic make the most of her skills.
Include Him in Your Activities
Although it might make the going slower, instead of setting your child up to draw while you make dinner or change his baby brother's diaper, let him help you out. A 3- or 4-year-old can stir batter, help set the table by putting out napkins, sort the laundry, pair up socks (great for teaching math skills), bring a diaper for the baby, put away toys, get his own shoes, and pick out his own clothes, says early-childhood consultant Susan Glaser, coauthor of Who's the Boss? Moving Families From Conflict to Collaboration. You just need to take the time to show him how it's done.
Learning basic life skills like these is important, but your little guy is grasping much more than that. "He's absorbing values like responsibility, taking care of someone beyond himself, and learning that in our family we chip in and work together," explains Parents advisor Michele Borba, Ed.D., author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions.
Realize She'll Say What You Say
Your child's language skills are blossoming at this age, so talking and reading to her will have a big payoff when it comes to vocabulary and grammar. Don't be afraid to challenge her by using specific, descriptive language rather than baby words. She's also taking in more subtle things, like how you speak to others. Obviously, you should pay attention to your "pleases" and "thank-yous," but it goes beyond that. "Preschoolers are very attuned to sarcasm and a fake nice tone," says Dr. Cohen, "So be direct, thoughtful, and sensitive."
Help Him Learn From Other Kids
Sometimes your child's friends can be the best role models. If your picky eater hangs out with his adventurous pal who loves green beans -- hey, your kid could start eating them too. If his BFF sits quietly in circle time and loves to look at books, he might just do the same thing. It's always a good idea to point out the behavior you admire; just don't put a value judgment on it, says Dr. Borba. You don't want your child to feel as though he's being compared.
Watch What She Watches
There are many TV shows and movies that purport to teach kids everything from manners to reading, but your child's a lot more likely to take note of those lessons if you discuss them as you watch. "Language is learned from interacting personally with an adult, not from a TV screen," says Glaser.
You may be surprised by what your child is picking up from a particular show or video -- he may imitate the nasty things the villain does, or if the "good" character does something wrong your child may miss the ultimate lesson learned and just remember the bad behavior. "Young children don't get the subtlety," says Dr. Cohen. You may not be able to choose all of your copycat's role models, but in this case you can easily grab the remote and change the channel.
Originally published in the July 2012 issue of Parents magazine.