Why Imitation in
Early Childhood is Crucial

During the first few years of life, children learn new skills, the typical use of certain objects, and the fundamentals of their mother tongue. One of the most intriguing questions is how young children are able to learn so many new things so quickly.

Developmental psychologists assume that the answer lies in human beings’ extraordinary ability to imitate – to mimic what they see and hear. Numerous studies have found that young children imitate a variety of behaviors, from carrying out simple actions using objects to producing the sounds of their native language. All parents have, at some point, experienced a sense of amazement when their children have repeated something they have seen or heard – hours or even days later. Longitudinal studies have confirmed that imitation plays an important role in a child’s development. They have found correlations between the amount of imitation that takes place during the first two years of a child’s life and subsequent language and social development. It is therefore no wonder that developmental psychologists have focused considerable attention on the question of how children develop the ability to imitate.

Imitation: Innate or learned?

Some of the most important developmental psychologists, including Switzerland’s Jean Piaget, assumed that children developed the ability to imitate during the first year of their lives. This view changed in the mid-1970s, when studies by Andy Meltzoff and his colleagues sought to demonstrate that infants were already able to imitate behavior only a few hours after their birth. Since newborns have little ability to carry out deliberate movements, these studies had to focus on very simple behaviors. For example, the researchers would stick out their tongues and then observe whether the infants would mimic that action. The initial results suggested that the infants might, in fact, be imitating the researchers’ behavior. For more than 30 years, such findings were considered to be evidence of an innate ability to imitate, and this view was adopted by textbooks in the fields of psychology and education.

The past ten years, however, have seen increasing skepticism. For one thing, the conclusions of Meltzoff and colleagues were based on small samples, which are more prone to error. A number of more recent, large-scale studies have failed to produce evidence of such an innate ability to imitate. So if the capacity for imitation is not inborn, how does it develop?

Children learn to imitate by being imitated

One exciting possibility is that children learn to imitate by being imitated by others. Indeed, observational studies of parent-child interactions have shown that parents start to imitate their children’s actions, emotions and facial expressions when the children are still very young. This happens at a time when the children are not yet capable of imitation, according to the most recent findings. Some researchers suspect that contingent imitation enables young children to establish a connection between their own actions and the things they observe, and that such connections form the basis for the development of the capacity for imitation. Some studies have produced evidence in support of this idea. However, we still lack large-scale observational studies that seek to understand how very young children develop the ability to imitate.

Studies of this kind are currently underway. At the University of Munich, we are conducting a study funded by the Jacobs Foundation to identify correlations between mothers’ imitative behavior and the development of their young children’s ability to imitate. The question is this: Are children whose mothers engage in more imitative behavior themselves better able to imitate? If children do, in fact, learn to imitate by being imitated, this would offer new opportunities to promote this ability. We look forward to the results of the current studies.