We all know that young children learn through imitation. Sometimes this is funny, like when a little two-year-old in my care walked up to a big four-year-old boy and said, “Hi Cutie!” Other times it makes us cringe a little bit, seeing our actions or hearing our words come out in miniature.
Although we know that children learn from imitation, the logical conclusion to that absolutely never occurred to me until I did my LifeWays training: that because children learn through imitation, in order to serve them best we must strive to be worthy of imitation.
What does this mean, in practical terms? Well, certainly we need to watch what we say. This one is fairly obvious: when we hear swear words coming from our toddlers’ lips, we realize that we need to restrain ourselves from swearing in front of them. But something that is just as important but perhaps not as obvious is our tone of voice. Do we speak in a warm, welcoming tone of voice, or do we let ourselves get snappy when we feel tired or rushed or annoyed? We can certainly speak firmly while still letting our love shine through, but when we snap angrily at children or at our spouse, it sends a different message. I will never forget a little boy in my care whose father had started working from a home in an office with glass doors. For two weeks, this little boy did nothing but dig angrily in the sandbox. If anyone tried to approach him he would yell at them, “Go away! Can’t you see I’m working?” Parents often have no idea how much of what happens at home comes out in children’s play. Children have no filters at this age; everything they experience soaks in.
Another thing to think about are our daily actions. Children thrive when they see caregivers doing “good work.” By good work I mean practical activities that children can imitate in their play, and eventually can help with or do themselves. Any sort of hobby where you make things (either useful or beautiful) are great for this: sewing, woodworking, mosaic art. And a great source for “good work” is household chores: cooking, cleaning, folding laundry, picking up toys. Set up an environment that allows your child to imitate you: have a miniature broom next to the full-sized broom. When you wipe the table, bring two cloths, and sing a little song while you do it. If your child asks to join in, you’ll already have a cloth ready. Instead of thinking of these things as chores that should be gotten through as quickly as possible, remember that you are a model for imitation in each case. Instead of slapping the plates together to unload the dishwasher, or setting the table as quickly as possible, imagine you were being filmed for each activity. Think about how you move, how you gesture, the attitude you display when you are doing this activity. Your child is soaking it all in. I love the image from the Disney movie Snow White, where the birds and woodland creatures come in to help her do her housework, and she sings joyfully through the whole thing. Who wouldn’t want to live in a house with a person who moved joyfully through every part of her day? How can we start to become that person?
And thirdly, what are you doing to take care of yourself so that you have the generosity of spirit you need? Children also benefit when they see that their caregivers have a rich life that doesn’t always include them.
As I move through my day at Rainbow Bridge, I’m very conscious of the fact that everything I say or do will be soaked in and imitated by the children I care for. Some days I do better than others; when I haven’t gotten enough sleep or a little boy poops in his pants for the fourth day in a row, I sometimes am not somebody who I’d like to see anyone imitating. But each day is a new opportunity, and the more I practice, the better I get.