Your Clever Toddler in Week 57: Why Copying Builds Relationships
Reflecting your child's speech and copying her actions affirms her existence—it's actually the highest form of flattery for her! Learn why it's the perfect way to build a relationship with any child, no matter her age.
Your Child’s Brain in Week 57
In your year-and-then-some together so far, life with your little one has involved assuming alternating roles when playing copycat. Remember waaaay back to your first days together, when the I-stick-my-tongue-out-when-you-do game was all the rage? At that young age, your baby was mimicking your behavior as a way of saying, “Wow, I really am just like you!”
Most likely, you responded to that cuteness with proud coos, what (you may remember) researchers call “parentese.” Speaking parentese was the first form of mimicry you performed in your relationship with your child: Baby made a high-pitched sound, so you responded with a similar tone put to words. It was a pleasurable communicative dance that laid the foundation for the conversations you’ll begin to have together later this year.
But right now, your toddler is quite literally looking to you—she’ll follow your gaze—to help guide her actions, a concept called social referencing. At the same time, when you copy her movements, sounds, or gestures, she feels validated—and ultimately more connected to you as her parent.
Best of all, this imitation-flattery routine isn’t just limited to your interactions with your child: Mimicking her actions and verbalizations is a great way for new people in her world—caregivers, extended family, visiting friends—to become more engaged with her.
What the Research Shows
In a series of trials, two researchers sat across a table from one 14-month-old after another. In front of the toddler sat a toy, and in front of each researcher were duplicates of the same toy. When the toddler would do something with the toy, such as bang it on the table, one researcher would copy her behavior. The other would do something else—slide the toy back and forth or wave it around.
How did the toddlers respond? With smiles and interest focused on the researcher who copied her behavior, not on the one who played differently with the toy. In subsequent trials, it didn’t matter what toys were used or what kinds of actions were mimicked—social rapport occurred only between the child and the researcher who mimicked the toddler’s actions.
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