When your child was younger, she'd mimic your example as a way of learning what was appropriate behavior. "Copying other kids at this age reflects her increasing social awareness," says Michelle Anthony, Ph.D., author of Little Girls Can Be Mean. "Once children start elementary school, they begin thinking of themselves as part of a larger group and figuring out how they fit in." Guide your child toward strong role models and better behavior with these strategies.
Imitating others isn't inherently a bad thing, says Dr. Anthony. In fact, studying your kid's copycat actions can offer clues about his motives. Not only is he deciding whom he admires, he's adjusting his behavior to be more like that person -- or to differentiate himself from kids he doesn't like. He might also mimic because he wants to get the same reactions his friends get, says Parents advisor Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., author of What About Me? 12 Ways to Get Your Parents' Attention (Without Hitting Your Sister). "If one kid says 'poopyhead' and everyone laughs, your child may try saying it to get everyone to laugh with him too." However, if he's using a word you're not crazy about -- whether he heard it from a classmate or on TV -- tell him it's not okay to say, and then ignore the behavior. That way, he won't get the attention he was after in the first place.
Urge your child to feel comfortable doing her own thing when appropriate. "At school, many children strive to conform, especially as they spend a great deal of time in groups," says Dr. Anthony, so it helps to send a consistent message at home that being different is okay too. Let your child know it's just fine if she doesn't think (or draw or dance) the same as others, but that she can find common ground with friends despite their differences.
Since you still have a fair amount of control over your child's life outside the classroom, you can monitor who (or what) influences his behavior. Try to schedule playdates with kids you consider to be good examples, suggests Dr. Kennedy-Moore, and choose family activities that emphasize positive values, like volunteering at a school bake sale together. Remember, your child is constantly learning how to treat others through your actions, so be mindful of how you speak to the cashier at the grocery store or handle a disagreement with your spouse.
If your child has picked up behaviors from mean girls, emphasize the importance of being kind and polite. "Kids this age have the capacity to understand why you think a certain behavior is good or bad, so explain it," advises Dr. Kennedy-Moore. Over time, she'll become more aware of how her actions affect others and adjust her behavior. "Imitating at this age doesn't mean your child will always be a follower," says Dr. Kennedy-Moore. "She's just experimenting, as she should be." With a little guidance from you, she'll be more likely to choose the best role models to emulate.
Originally published in the June 2014 issue of Parents magazine.