Learning requires a counterpart. How to deal properly with imitation

Karl-Reinhard Kummer

Another example: our daughter, two-and-a-half years old at the time, suddenly started to walk about studiously moving from one leg to the other, her hands folded behind her back, an expression of great import and meaningfulness on her face. We had been visiting museums and art galleries where the attendants walked around in that fashion, full of seriousness and responsibility for the paintings in their care. These examples can stand for many other experiences which parents have with small children.

Children acquire what is typical in their parents and teachers

Small children are influenced by what happens in their surroundings much more than adults can imagine. They take in everything they experience lock, stock and barrel. Thus Rudolf Steiner in The Kingdom of Childhood compared the art of bringing up the small child to a sense organ that is exposed to the influences of the world, taking them in.

Adults can experience this inner activity most impressively when they enter into eye contact with the infant: the child’s eyes are wide open, his or her deep gaze looking into the distance as if into eternity. The child appears far removed – and yet intensively present, full of affection, open and attentive. He or she will later watch typical movements of the parents, their gestures, the way they breathe, indeed whole patterns of movement such as a bearish walk, with the same openness. It also includes the care and attention with which the parent lay the table. Small children do not just want to imitate the “what” but also the “how”. At two years they love to imitate sighs or figures of speech such as “Oh well” and “Oh no!”. Colour, beauty and musicality become “ingrained”. But what the child really does and does not acquire remains his or her secret. Thus siblings may often act quite differently.

Children acquire inner qualities above all

A characteristic feature of imitation is that the children make the inner nature and qualities of the people around them their own, not just their actions. Planned or unplanned actions, good and bad habits become their own. Just as with a good musician we no longer hear the individual tones but the music, the things that are imitated turn into the individual patterns of movement and behaviour of the child, his or her own rhythm of life and day, his or her own being.  

But the moral characteristics, the basic religious attitudes of adults, their fundamental trust in and harmony with the world are also transferred to the child. Finally, it is also social character traits such as honesty, directness, willingness to help or empathy which are imitated.  

The child acquires all these qualities intuitively. According to Rudolf Steiner, they are attributable to the influence of high spiritual beings which act in a formative way on the body and soul.

Such imitation is most intensively at work during infancy and up to school age. There is already a small caesura as soon as the independent thinking awakens. At preschool age it is a matter in role-play of acting out models in the soul; to become like the King, the Princess or St Nicholas. At school age it is then no longer general models but the teacher standing in front of the class who is imitated.

The more children develop into independent personalities, the more they emancipate themselves from imitation. The next caesura is the so-called Rubicon at age nine when the child learns to face the teacher with self-assurance. Now children reorientate themselves: instead of imitating unconsciously they observe the adult and choose for themselves what they want to learn from the teacher or parents. The actual period of imitation ends with puberty. But imitation continues to have an effect unconsciously for quite a while. Many people in a concert suddenly feel a need to cough when one person starts. Listeners also feel an irritation in the throat when the speaker becomes hoarse.  

No learning without other people

Learning is tied to children having another person as their counterpart. They can only learn through the other person and his or her inner being. All the findings from deprivation research and about child neglect have confirmed this ever since the experiments of Emperor Frederick II in the Middle Ages. In the worst case, children perish or are severely damaged if there are no other people. Alongside the personality, the human abilities of walking, speaking and thinking cannot be developed either. In contrast, children can also imitate role models from video recordings but it has been confirmed in developmental psychology that the learning effect is very minor without the teacher. The physically present role model is the key thing for successful learning.

A second condition concerns concentration and focus: children can only imitate well when they turn their attention to a single event. All background noise such as music or television inhibit this form of early experience. The third essential condition concerns the climate of imitation: in order to imitate, children have to be open to their surroundings. That requires a climate of comfort, of warmth and love, reverence and attentiveness.

Imitation acts on the body. Studies in brain research corroborate how habits are inscribed into the functioning and structure of human beings. Imitation does not mean that children necessarily copy  everything. They make a selection: some things they adopt, others they do not. With regard to imitation, Rudolf Steiner uses the image of a painter who paints a landscape. The painting is similar to the landscape but represents something independent. This explains how the child might for a while imitate the father, then the mother, and then at another time the grandmother. Epigenetic research has revealed that it is not just the genome alone which is of importance. The crucial thing is how the individual releases certain genes for use, or not.

More recent research results which confirm the importance of imitation also include studies on speech comprehension. Thus adults only understand the speech of their interlocutor if they inwardly follow the motion when listening. The much-described mirror neurons serve these imitation processes .

Imitation is not mimicry

Many children appear to be so awake in their senses that we do not notice the soft inner processes in imitation. Yet they form the prerequisite for the child to acquire thinking and later on learning in school. We only learn to think from the thinking of the other, precisely through imitation. Being able to experience meaningful actions and meaningful role models is the prerequisite for our own thinking. In this respect, too, the normal daily routine of the child is a constant impulse.

Such unconscious imitation must be distinguished from intentional mimicry. It starts as early as the first year of life and grows in importance from about the age of two. When children begin to stand upright, they pull themselves up on the bars of the bed or the furniture, drop down again, up again, and so on. The two-year-old chatters incessantly, the three-year-old enthusiastically repeats his or her first independent thoughts.  

There is another important step on the path to our own thinking, namely play. Playful moments already lie in the first smile of the small infant at eight weeks. Children become creative in play: some things they adopt in imitation as if in their sleep, other things they try out through play, abandon them again, noncommittal and smiling. At the age of two to three years children want to be able to do things in precisely the same way as their parents or carers. Now they learn processes like laying the table, tidying up or fetching a sheet of paper for drawing. But these impulses to mimic things come from the same inner need as imitation: children do not just want to do the same as the adult but be exactly the same. If that does not work they can despair. Thus the step from imitation to intentional playful mimicry often cannot be precisely delineated. Independent thinking then awakens powerfully in speaking at the age of three but it has been a long time in development. For example in the love, care and attention with which the mother put the small infant to the breast. To the extent that imitation declines, actively intentional practice increases towards school age. Wanting to practice is precisely a sign of readiness for school. Schoolchildren no longer unconsciously want to become like the adult but have their own criteria of quality. That may be different in children with disabilities: although they can take in things in inner imitation, there are many things they cannot turn into action in mimicry.

What does the child’s imitation demand of the adult?

Every child needs role models, but how should the adult behave? The answer is simple yet difficult: simply to be one’s real self, authentic. We have to know what our responsibilities are – then we may do many things with that little bit of greater awareness. Children need a healthy climate of love and the healthy role model of the adult like the painter needs a model or a landscape to be motivated to develop something new of his or her own. What children make of this is then a matter of their personality and freedom.

About the author: Dr Karl-Reinhard Kummer is a paediatrician and school doctor, he lives in Berlin.