Young children learn by imitating others. But the ability to imitate is not innate; it has to be learned. A study now shows that interaction with parents plays an important role. The more mothers pick up on and imitate their baby’s gestures and sounds, the better the child learns to learn through imitation. As a result, at the age of 18 months, children can imitate others better than children with less experience of this kind. Social interactions are therefore a key factor for cultural learning from an early age.
We humans are considered one of the most socially developed species in the world. But how do our unique social-cognitive abilities arise? According to researchers, a central cornerstone of this is imitation: by copying the behavior of others, we acquire new knowledge and new skills. This is the most important way for children to learn. While it was long assumed that the ability to imitate was innate, recent studies have shown that babies are not yet able to imitate the gestures, facial expressions or sounds of those around them in the first few weeks of their lives. The ability to imitate, which forms the basis for later learning, also has to be learned first.
Mother-child interactions observed
A team led by Samuel Essler from the Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich has now investigated how babies learn to imitate. To do this, they invited 127 mothers and their babies to their laboratory several times over the course of a year. The children first came to Essler and his team when they were six months old. The researchers observed via video how the mothers played with their children for eight minutes – sometimes with, sometimes without toys. They evaluated how often mother and child imitated each other and how sensitively the mother responded to her child.
Further appointments took place at the ages of ten, 14 and 18 months. In addition to the free play tasks, the researchers also used standardized tests to examine the extent to which the child could imitate a member of the research team. For example, does he knock on a cup in front of him when the person opposite him also does the same? Does he try to make a teddy bear dance on a string when he has seen someone else do it before?
The result: Children who were often imitated by their mothers were better able to imitate the actions shown at 18 months. “The mother’s sensitivity toward her six-month-old baby and the frequency with which she imitated her 14-month-old child were positively associated with the children’s imitation skills at 18 months of age,” the researchers report. Essler’s colleague Markus Paulus summarizes: “Children acquire the ability to imitate because they themselves are imitated by their caregivers.”
Mutual imitation is therefore a fundamental form of communication between parents and children. Parents respond to their child’s signals, mirror them and thereby reinforce them. “Through these experiences, what the child feels and does becomes connected to what he or she sees. Associations emerge. The visual experience is linked to one’s own motor actions,” explains Paulus. In this way, the children gradually learn to use gestures and actions consciously, for example, returning a smile or answering a wave with their own wave. “Children are miracles of imitation. Imitation paves the way for their further development. The cultural process of becoming human begins with imitation,” says Paulus.
Basis of cultural learning
According to the researchers, the study shows what makes us human beings as social beings. “By being part of a social interaction culture in which they are imitated, children learn to learn from others. This interplay has led to human cultural evolution over generations and millennia,” explains Paulus. “Through social learning, actions or certain techniques do not have to be reinvented again and again, but there is a cultural transmission of knowledge. Our results show that the ability to imitate and thus learn culturally is itself a product of cultural learning, particularly parent-child interaction.”
Source: Samuel Essler (Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich) et al., Current Biology, doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2023.08.084