Is your toddler screaming? Not wanting to share? Science may just have the answers to helping your child’s bad behaviour improve.
After my first one turned 2 and a bit, I went to my mother with a story I thought was crazy—and specific to me.
One night at dinner I got upset at my partner and had an epic outburst (for a reason which was obviously so very important I have forgotten it). The performance was so dramatic it would have put a scene from Neighbours to shame. It unfolded like so: Seated at dinner next to my partner and across from my 2-year old daughter I got upset about god-knows what, slammed my hands on the table, pushed my food out of the way as if it had insulted my mother, dramatically crossed my arms on the table, and threw my head down. For good measure I let out a sigh.
After my performance, I calmed down and lifted my head to see my daughter, who was seated across from me, perform the exact same act. Complete with sigh.
I was flabbergasted. And ashamed.
After I finished telling the story to my mum, she replied with a gentle laugh and shared these words of wisdom, “Miranda Rose, little rabbits have big ears.”
Turns out this isn’t a unique story at all and my mother knew better (of course she did). After having four of her own she was always mindful of how she treated others, including us. She was the epitome of class and grace. My mother realised very early on, eyes aren’t the mirror to our soul, kids are—and you better believe whatever you do, they can and will also do.
“Don’t worry that children never listen to you; worry that they are always watching you.”ROBERT FULGHUM
What my mum attributed to ‘big ears’, is actually what’s known as Imitation. Imitation allows kids to go through a ‘trial-and-error’ process to see which behaviours and skills are right and wrong, eventually leading them to becoming more autonomous as they grow up. Our caveman ancestors would have known this as surviving.
Your little one’s ability to imitate simple actions, like sighing, is an inbuilt social learning technique used very early on in life to help them get through life. Specifically it helps children:
- Learn new skills and
- Fit in with those around them
While they are imitating us from day dot, by 15 months, most toddlers have developed the motor and cognitive skills necessary to imitate in a more advanced way . Children this age are usually mobile and have some hand-eye coordination so it’s around this age you’ll start seeing behaviours you hadn’t previously—good and bad.
Learning new skills is exhausting
Humans, compared to other primates, grow a lot slower during childhood and a recent study has some answers why.
Researchers at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois discovered it’s to do with the incredible amount of energy the brain needs to develop. During early childhood development, the brain is doing most of its essential learning and can be using upwards of 40% of the body’s total energy expenditure. It requires a lot of energy to become the complex system the body needs it to be, thereby reducing the energy spent on growing the body. This is the time where kids ‘learn so many new things that are critical to becoming successful humans’, says Anthropologist Christopher Kuzawa.
Imitation helps the brain learn and practice essential skills while it is still developing, enabling kids to learn at a much faster rate.
Studies have shown kids are able to learn new tasks after having observed someone do that task either in person or on a screen.
The part of the brain responsible for this is called ‘mirror neurons’. Recently, scientists have discovered that mirror neurons (a subset of motor neurons) are activated when you watch someone else perform a task (with a clear intention e.g reaching for a cup). When they’re activated, they create neural connections in the brain as if the body was physically doing the task itself. This gives kids the opportunity to learn motor skills not only by performing them, but also by watching someone perform them. And the more they’re watching you do something, the more likely they will be able to do it. Crazy.
Social is survival
In addition to learning new skills, children are innately programmed to want to be just like you. Our primal ancestors needed to belong to a tribe for better chances at survival. ‘Belonging’ is a biological need all humans have in order to live happier and healthier lives and imitation is the perfect social ‘tool’ to achieve it.
Kids are vulnerable when they’re younger and rely on imitation to ‘fit in’ and ultimately be cared for. When they imitate you, they’re signalling ‘I’m just like you, I’m just like one of the tribe’.
You can reinforce their need for inclusion and reassure them through imitation as well. When playing with your little one, you can imitate them, signalling ‘yes, you’re just like me’. You can do this by copying their voice and their actions.
Reciprocal imitative games provide the infant with special information about how they are like other people and how others are like them.”Andrew N Meltzoff, Department of Psychology, University of Washington
Observation, not always imitation
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 behavioural paediatrics at the Children’s Health Centre of St. Joseph’s Hospital, in Phoenix.
Reinforcement and repetition also play a big part in repeated actions and behaviour. Kids look to others around them to indicate if what they’re doing is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, and often what they consider ‘right’ is also what they see being repeated.
So don’t worry, they may not pick up your bad dance moves when Beyonce is blaring, yet.
What you can do at home
Our little one’s are constantly looking for cues to help decide what behaviours and actions to repeat. By understanding the reasons why and how kids need to imitate, you can curb those less desirable behaviours and direct them on the path to learning better ones. Here’re some tips:
- Your little ones not sharing? You can show them how it works with others around you. Something as simple as happily giving the remote control to someone can demonstrate desired behaviour. The key is letting them see you pair desired behaviour and actions with a positive emotion.
- Bad manners? Demanding? Make a habit of saying please and thank you and reward them when they say it. Button jars and reward charts are great ways to keep track of, and reward good behaviour.
- Not great at socialising? Invite your friends around. Being social is better for us, and it’s better for our kids and by socialising often, they will come to learn its value. There is more and more research on the health benefits of socialisation which include better cardiovascular health, stronger immune systems, overall happiness, better memory and stress reduction. By displaying healthy social interactions with friends and family anywhere you go, you’re giving your little one everything they need to know about how to behave in the playground and how to build relationships. The cues kids pick up on are tone, how often you touch someone, whether you hug or kiss someone hello, what volume is appropriate and so much more.
- Most importantly, 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 behaviour.” Whether it’s eating well or practicing mindfulness, adopt positive behaviours so they imitate the good.