Copycat kids: Why they do it

Has life with your preschooler recently started to feel like an obnoxious game of Simon Says?

Photo: Masterfile

One of four-year-old Kate’s favourite pastimes is emulating (or at least trying to emulate) her 12-year-old stepsister, Marley. “From Marley’s clothing and hairstyle, to her birthday party themes and bedroom decor, Kate wants to be the same as her older sister,” the girls’ mom, Kaylynn Joly, says. And not only does Kate copy the nice, but she also mimics the naughty. After hearing Kate’s tween sister utter, “Whatever,” before storming off to her room, Joly says Kate followed Marley’s behaviour to a tee later that night when she wasn’t allowed to eat cookies for dinner. “For the most part, I think her copying is hilarious and adorable,” the Belleville, Ont., mom says. “Though I am a bit terrified of when Marley gets a little more of that teenage attitude and it rubs off on Kate.”

No surprise here, but kids of all ages are masters of imitation. Calgary parenting expert and author Judy Arnall says kids learn through observation. “Imitating is a very safe way to learn; it’s also necessary to help children learn which behaviours are acceptable in the society and culture they live in, and which are not.”

Though most wee ones catch on early (remember when you’d stick your tongue out at your five-month-old and she’d follow suit?), tots in the preschool age group excel at copycat behaviour. They’re testing limits, they’re becoming more verbal and they’re picking up a lot from the world around them. “Children copy ‘grown-up behaviour,’ such as occupations, dress and makeup, technology (like talking on the phone and tapping on a tablet), and act out roles, like being the mommy, teacher, fireman, etc.,” Arnall says. They learn by repeating pretty much everything they hear and see.

My four-year-old, for example, recently declared that watching golf on tv with her daddy is “terribly boring.” She doesn’t know what “terribly boring” means, but I know she’s heard me say it. Joly says Kate has also been repeating grown-up phrases. “The other day she passed gas, immediately looked at me all embarrassed and said, ‘Awkward.’ That’s something I say.”

If your preschooler is clearly modelling his or her behaviour after his or her parents, Arnall says it’s up to Mom and Dad to cut it out first. “Then the parent should choose a quiet moment and have a talk with their preschooler about why the copycat behaviour is annoying, and ask them to stop.”

Three-year-old Marc-Antoine is his six-year-old big sister’s echo, according to Ottawa mom Dawna LaBonté-Parkhill. “He repeats everything Madeleine says. At first it was cute because it was flattering. Then it started to annoy Madeleine, and he caught onto that really quickly.” LaBonté-Parkhill says Marc-Antoine uses mimicry to get a reaction. “He’s tried doing it to me once or twice, and all I said was that adults don’t like being copied, and he stopped.”

While some imitating is pretty laughable to the adults in the room (like little Kate’s quip), remember that there are less-than-silly words and actions kids sop up, too, like the ways their parents show anger, including cursing or slamming doors. With impressionable kids around, Arnall adds that parents must “make a conscious effort to change what we do and say. After all, monkey see, monkey do.”

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