Childish Imitation

Children have never been good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them – James Baldwin

How often have we heard people say “Do as I say, not as I do“? I certainly heard it a lot growing up. It’s like your parent is admitting that they know what is the right thing to do, yet they are unable to do it for themselves, or they think the rules do not apply to them. It’s like they are somehow exempt from doing things right and are better and know better than you.

I did a couple of parenting courses a few years ago, and what remained most in my memory is that the world is slowly moving towards equality and kids want to get in on the action. Victorian rules just don’t cut it any more. Children think they are entitled to this equality. They see it between their parents hopefully and between kids at school. They believe that they deserve equality because they are being human beings and that age and experience count for nothing. They will not accept our demands unless it feels fair to them. Therefore when we impose strict rules and make stupid statements like this, they refuse to play along, preferring act like we act and reap the benefits we do. I believe they are equal; equal in that they should be treated with common courtesy, with the same rules for all. Being equal to us means they reap the consequences of their actions like we do.

Even in business, ‘making strict rules ‘ for someone else you have power over rarely works. There has to be respect, compromise and an understanding of why you are are asking for the rules and demands to be obeyed. We can accept a certain amount of ‘well he’s the boss, I’d better toe the line if I want to keep my job’ but the ‘bosses’ will get better results out of us if they are leading by example and we admire and try to emulate them instead of guess what it is they want from us.

I have had bosses that seem to shirk their work, take long lunches regularly, throw their weight around, try to micromanage everyone, and afford no respect to anyone, not even responding to ‘Good morning’. Surely people like this should have been bred out, using Darwin’s Law of Survival of the Fittest, but sadly no. I wonder how that works out for them in the long term? With their employees, their families and friends? At one company, exactly 30 out of 37 staff left in the year and a half that I suffered through working there. This particular owner was expecting us to do what he said but with very little information, and no respect or explanation why behind his requests. You were not allowed to ask why you were doing something either, and without the facts you could not use your own initiative and troubleshoot if things didn’t go according to plan. You heard him talking about everyone else as being idiots, therefore you knew that he talked about you that way also.

So what did we do? We spoke of him as being the idiot, we were not engaged enough to do the kind of work we were capable of, our hands were tied with the work that we were doing, working ‘blind’ and he continued to believe he was surrounded by idiots. He actually made us into idiots. Self-fulfilling prophecy.

So this idea of children imitating you (and of course this is the best example because children learn so much from their parents and grow by watching, copying, learning) rather than learning from what you say makes perfect sense. If you tell a child what to do, they must interpret your words as best they can with their immature brains, and try to put it into action. You may not have explained correctly in the first place and the children are ‘flying blind’ again. Some children learn best with auditory instruction, some visual, some by using their minds, others their bodies, their ears etc etc. No matter how your particular child takes in information best, by doing something we are giving them very specific information that words could not possibly capture. A picture is worth a thousand words. And a ‘movie’ (demonstration) may be worth a million probably. Not only that, the children see how it affects our moods when we do it; the whole experience!

So while your advice to a child may be perfectly valid, it is but a tiny proportion of information and theoretical at best. Plus we tend to use fear as a reason to give advice, so it’s often in the form of ‘Don’t do’. Scant information indeed. Far more interesting the child thinks, to ‘do’ and see what happens. You can’t learn much by ‘not doing’ anything.

Demonstrating is a form of ‘do this’ and it gives us the confidence to do it, try it and hopefully get the same results as the person we are copying.

Getting back to the listening. Who wants to be told what to do all the time? And if we agree to try, is there enough information? Do we know why we are supposed to do or not do this thing?

I went to a talk on teenagers and we were told that to rant at a teenager is a waste of breath, no matter how loud. After 14 seconds they will tune out. Max. 14 seconds to get your point across. I also learned that kids need to be told something 50 times, like hang up wet towels before they will get it. Save your frustration by learning what is normal at each of a child’s development and changing your expectations accordingly. Observe rather than judge their actions. We only make ourselves sad when there is a gap between expectation and what actually happens. Narrow that gap. If there is no expectation at all, there is no gap and therefore less frustration.

Parents bemoan the fact that kids throw their schoolbag down when they come in. How about we always make a point of carefully hanging our bag by the door instead of chucking it down where we feel like? No words needed.

There is a story I have heard a few times about a lady always cutting off the ends of her roast before putting it the oven and not knowing why. Turns out she learned by example from her mother. Her mother explained that it was because the oven was too small, when this lady was young, so she had to do that just to get it in the pan. The reasoning may not have been sound but the method of teaching was.

Another story I like is that of 2 people needing an orange each for a recipe yet there only being one available. They carefully cut it in half and each had to make do. They later discovered that one wanted the peel only, and the other wanted the juice, so they both could have had a whole orange in effect. (This doesn’t really fit the quote but I was digressing in the area of food. Must be hungry). Moral of that story is that a little explanation and shared information leads to the best outcome.

And so it is with children, and employees, and anyone else in your life who you might call upon to do something for you.

We are all influenced by the people around us. We are all touched in some way by people we have met and befriended, and we carry a little part of them with us.. Sometimes when I laugh, I hear my brother’s laugh, or my stepfather’s or my daughter’s. I use my mother’s expressions, my ex-husband’s made up words (like a Squirter for a TV Remote control) and I imitate my current partner frequently whether I want to or not. Some of us are more drawn to imitation more than others. This is most embarrassing when you are with someone who imitates the strong accents of people they are talking to, like a broad Scotsman or a foreigner with broken English!!

But imitation is hardwired into all of us, from birth. And it serves a very useful purpose to teach us and to bring us closer in order to feel a connection with others. When we imitate another, it is because on some level we have accepted the action and decided that it is a good thing to do. It was not forced on us, like verbal demands might be. We have choice. And that is what kids crave – the choice to do or not do, imitate or not, in order to try it out. They feel equal, not bossed around. And that is when the real influence starts.