Imitation, the Media, and the World of the Young Child

Early in my Waldorf teacher training, I learned that young children learn through imitation.  It has taken me years to come to understand the myriad of ways in which this truth plays out in daily life.  Imitation is how children learn to walk, talk, and take on the specific values of their culture.  Learning through imitation is taking place every minute, and is a shining example of the importance of the small things in life.

I have often heard parents express surprise when they see how well their kids play when the parents are engaged in some useful work.  Because of their innate ability to imitate, children are closely influenced by their caregiver’s energy and mood.  When caregivers work with concentration and interest, children can play with that same energy.  But, I become most aware of the power of imitation every time I do something in my children’s presence that they can’t imitate, mainly every time I open the computer or talk on the phone.  When I do these activities, their play changes.  Sometimes it manifests in more arguing or sometimes they suddenly are not able to find something to do.  At first this phenomenon annoyed me.  It seemed every time I thought I had a free minute, someone needed something.  Over time as I observed more, I noticed it is much less likely to happen when I am folding laundry or sweeping the floor.  When I do these things, they want to be a part of it.  As silly as it sounds, I realized yet again, that my children depend on me.  In addition to all of the obvious ways, my children also depend on me to be imitate-able.  They want to live into my adult actions with me.  But they can’t see what I am doing on the computer and there isn’t much for them to learn from or imitate.  When I am on the phone, my older son asks me questions about the snippets he hears me say.  He wants to be part of the conversation.  In those moments, they call for me because they feel my energy and attention going into something of which they can’t be a part.

It doesn’t mean I can’t ever do these things in their presence, but it does mean that I nee d to be conscious of finding the right balance.  Computers and handheld devices are an opening to an interesting and never-ending source of information.  Because of that, time spent there passes quickly. Children sense the divided attention that results and they will imitate that too.  If I want to help my children to develop the ability to focus, follow through, and find joy in the inescapable daily tasks of life, I have to allow them to observe those traits in me.  Quite a bit has been written about the potential effects of media use on young children, but little has been said about how media may be taking away children’s opportunities for real actions to imitate.  What I do in front of my children offers food for their development in a variety of subtle ways.

After thinking on this for awhile, I started to pay attention to how I was influenced by what my parents did in front of me and how they did it.  When I visit my parents, I am reminded of how I chop vegetables in the same manner as my mother, sneaking bits of carrots and celery as I go.  Examining my mannerisms and habits, there are so many I can trace back to my formative years.  When I think about what I’d like my kids to remember about me, it is the joyful way I sing to them while I am working, or how we sweep the floor and wash the windows together. What I do in my children’s presence is important.  Of equal importance is how I do what I do.

What household chores do you enjoy doing with your children?  What things have you done to make this easier?