How and why children identify with their parents

My son used to love to ‘shave’ with me. I would help him lather up his cheeks and give him an empty razor so he could pretend. But, on a busy morning, it was easy to forget how important his drive to imitate my behavior really was, and how much of a compliment it was, too. As the minutes ticked by, I would try to remember this, however, and to encourage and support his play-acting. I would guess most parents have had the same experience. To remain patient, I would remind myself about just how much of a role model parents are to their children and what a big help it can be in cementing your relationship and providing guidance. Keeping this in mind may help prevent you from misunderstanding some of your child’s imitative behavior and from injuring your child’s good-hearted impulse to be like you and be liked by you.

Your child’s tendency to want to be like mom and dad is one of the most powerful influences on his emerging character. In fact, your baby’s tremendous conscious and unconscious urge to emulate you is one of the strongest, and perhaps most often overlooked, motivators of behavior. This inherent impulse to identify with you can be a tremendous help in raising an emotionally healthy child.

What’s behind an infant’s tendency to imitate and identify with parents? The answer takes us into a much studied and somewhat complicated aspect of infant development. Darwin (1809-1882) was much intrigued by the strength of imitative tendencies in both animals and man, and Freud (1856-1939) studied these processes in depth from a psychological perspective. More recently, researchers such as Meltzoff and Gadini explored the tendencies of infants to identify with and emulate the important people in their lives. These studies suggest that at a very early age much of a child’s well-being and sense of belonging comes from the feeling that ‘I am like my parent’ and ‘My parent is like me.’ Parents too have these feelings of “likeness” with their children. And it is this exchange of identification that gives a child a feeling of kinship and leads to a child’s idealization of the parents. These are complex dynamics. Even sorting out words such as identification, imitation, mimic and the phrase “to be like” is more than we need to take on—each has a distinct meaning in the world of child psychology. However, for this discussion, I will use the words interchangeably and with their everyday conversational meanings.

How your child sees you

Babies always seem most interested in what you have or what you are doing. They want to play with the shaving cream or use the toothbrush. As a parent, you can use this tendency to teach the baby a variety of things. For example, what better way to teach your child to wash his hands or brush his teeth that to do it first, yourself. “See Mommy brushing her teeth like this. Uppers. Lowers. Oh, you want to play with this? Okay, here we go.” Or, if you have to struggle to get your child to allow you to clip her nails, you can try showing her how you clip yours, first. “See? Clip this one, and this one. Now, do you want to try? Okay, here we go. Let me hold it with you and we’ll do it together. Very good.” Imitation can also help make haircuts an easier process. They are often a real trial, because of the newness of the situation, the rapid movements toward the child’s head and eyes, and the use of scissors, which have been the subject of loud warnings such as “Sharp! Be careful.” The solution? Try sitting in the barber’s chair and get a little trim first. Pretty soon your child will be clamoring to get in the chair or on your lap and have a haircut too.

Children learn more than simple tasks through their impulse to imitate you. They use imitation and identification to pick up a lot more complex and subtle information. Much of your child’s character is formed by the tendency to imitate your worldview, emotional expressions and attitudes. She inevitably picks up your habits regarding tension regulation, playfulness, learning, interpersonal relationships and expression of affection. That’s why being affectionate and honest in your dealings with your child and other people will help tremendously in raising an affectionate and honest child. Telling your child, “Don’t lie,” or “Be nice!” is much less effective than telling the truth and being kind yourself. You’ll discover very quickly the wisdom of “actions speak louder than words” and “practice what you preach.” As one dad once told me, “I sure learned in a hurry to watch my bad habits once Charlie was around.”

Other ways to use identification to help your child develop include:

Demonstrating tension regulation: If you are able to modulate your emotions, so that you don’t fly off the handle when you are frustrated, your child has a better chance of learning to do the same. If, on the other hand, you are given to impulsive rages, outbursts of anger or yelling, chronic impatience and irritation, then your child will think that is the right way to handle stressful situations. If you don’t have good tension regulation yourself, then chances are there will be two people — you and your child — in the house who don’t know how to defuse a tense situation or soothe their frazzled nerves. That can make for a lot of bickering, ill will and mutual frustration. All of this really gets back to understanding and dealing reasonably with the foundation of emotional life — the nine built-in signals.

Playful is as playful does: Being able to find the interest and enjoyment in a wide variety of circumstances — even those that are stressful such as a traffic jam — teaches your child useful ways of regulating tension, and makes the world a more interesting and rewarding place.

Instilling the love of learning: If you have a curious mind and enjoy reading, taking classes, figuring out how to build things, or discussing ideas and world events, you will provide a role model for your child that will bring a lifetime of pleasure and reward. When watching TV, keep a dictionary, encyclopedia or computer handy so you can look up words, or historical figures or find more information on a subject. Make a game out of it. When you travel, make an effort to show your child maps of where you are going, explain geography and encourage questions about where you are and what you see.

Showing your child how to express affection and to be a good friend: The ability to have satisfying intimate relationships is learned, in part, through the way parents relate to their children, to one another and to their friends. If you are able to show affection and to be both sympathetic and empathic, then your child will not only receive the benefits of your warm nature, he will also learn how to form intimate relationships.

Translating actions and feelings into words: As mentioned earlier, labeling feelings and substituting words for actions greatly enhances the emotional and cognitive development of a young child. Talking to your child about what you are thinking and feeling and labeling your child’s signals and emotions for him from a very early age will help him learn how to manage emotions and use the metaphor of language to express intense emotions as early as possible. You can help your child develop this skill by making sure you actively use words to communicate your feelings and as a substitute for actions. For example, when you are angry, if you express your feelings using reasonable words that convey your thoughts instead of throwing things or ranting, then your child will learn to do the same.

Including your child in decision-making situations: From an early age you can help your child gain confidence in his ability to identify and express what he thinks, wants and believes by asking him to participate in everyday decision-making. Even toddlers can be allowed input in a family decision: Go to the grocery store or to a restaurant for dinner? Make soup or a peanut butter sandwich for lunch? Wear your pink socks or your blue ones? It may make life less efficient in the short-run, but in the long run you will teach your child about the decision-making process, weighing pros and cons, and that you value his opinion and trust his judgment.

Using imitation and identification to help develop manners: Manners are important for children, not only do they make it easier for children to find acceptance and make friends, but manners also teach boundaries and remind them that other people’s feelings and needs are important. Even before your child learns to talk, they can pick up the nuances that are communicated when people treat one another with respect and care. You have the chance to set a tone that she will bring into her world of words and language as she mature. But how often have you heard a parent admonish a child, “say, please;” “say, thank you,” “say you’re sorry;” “hold the door for that person;” but without saying or doing those things themselves? If you want your child to learn manners, things will go much easier if you demonstrate the behavior instead of talking just about it. If you treat your child politely and say, “sweetheart, would you please pick that apple up off the floor,” or “thank you for closing the door,” the child will be much more likely to act politely as she gets older.

Children also learn to apologize and acknowledge a mistake without being defensive by watching how you handle your mistakes. If you say, “Oh, I am so sorry I pinched your finger in the high chair,” or, “Honey, I am very sorry I dropped your toy car and chipped the headlight. Should I try to fix it?” then they will grow up with a graceful style of handling their own missteps.

Using humor and appealing to your child’s self-interest are also good ways to teach manners. If you want your preverbal child to learn to say please, you can turn it into a fun sounding game: “Honey, will you pleeeeeze give me that book?” makes the word ‘please’ funny and entertaining. It catches the child’s attention and teaches a lesson using playfulness.

Beyond modeling behavior: teaching decision-making

Imitation can also be used to help your child develop good decision-making skills so they can sort out feelings and select the most appropriate option for responding. Manners, tension regulation, playfulness are all important examples of the ability to make a good decision about how to handle complex interactions and internal emotions.

Here again, kids pick up a lot of their habits about decision making from watching you do the same. If you impose rules on a child, “because I say so,” then the child will learn that arbitrary seeming responses are the way to behave and one day when you ask why on earth your child has done this or that, the toddler will look at you and say, “Because I want to,” and feel that is a reasonable explanation. Being authoritarian toward your child may be mirrored back at you in the form of stubbornness and inflexibility. That’s why over and over I have stressed the importance of labeling and explaining your directives to your child. When you tell a child to do or not do something, set out your reasons for it in a calm, loving voice. Don’t hesitate to say, even to the youngest infant, “I don’t want you to do that because I love you and I don’t want you to get hurt.” Or, “You can’t have that because that is something that is valuable to Daddy and he would be sad if it was ruined.” Explain why. Talk about what you believe and feel. Take the time to communicate instead of trying to end a situation quickly and moving on. If you operate with the unstated message that sharing thoughts and discussing reasons for decisions is a waste of time, your child will pick up on that. But if you explain why you do or think things, then the child will understand that you think things through and will learn to do the same himself.

Common misunderstandings:

Parents can easily misunderstand a child’s desire to imitate their behavior. It is an injustice that can stick with a child her whole life. Many times, when I ask parents to recall an early conflict with their parents, they often mention being misunderstood when they were simply trying to act like their mom or dad. Yet, ironically, with their own kids, they fall into the common trap of seeing their child’s actions as “misbehavior,” when they are often no more than innocent imitation. One child I knew was always playing with the buttons on her parents’ alarm clock before she went to bed. Her father was getting angry about it, until her mother realized that the child was simply doing what she’d seen her father do when he was getting ready for bed. They cleverly decided that the solution was to put an old alarm clock in the child’s bedroom so she could “set” it for herself.

I know of another father of a two-year old boy who was convinced that his son was learning how to steal money when he found him going through his work pants and taking out keys and coins. The father was going to punish the boy rather severely, until a friend suggested that the little boy was just doing what his father did. “He’s trying to be a grow-up man, just like you. He’s putting his change and keys in his pockets and getting ready for work.” The dad then bought his son a pair of overalls with a front pocket and put a little wallet in it with a couple of dollar bills and some plastic keys. He then made a point of putting his pants on the same time as his son did and they both put their keys and money into their pockets. Sharing the activity delighted his son and the son’s so-called stealing was correctly understood to be playful identification with dad. The father validated his child’s desire to imitate him, but he also took advantage of the situation to impart an important lesson in manners and behavior. He explained to his son that it is not a good idea to take money or anything else that belongs to someone else. “You need to ask first, and explain why you want it,” he told him.

Potential trouble spots: When children imitate parents’ misbehavior

Since an infant child cannot discriminate between your attributes that are worth copying and those that might be better left alone, it is useful to be aware of the negative traits that you might be teaching your child — some of which you may have picked up from your own parents. You may want to take an inventory of how you express the nine signals — interest, enjoyment, surprise, distress, anger, fear, shame, disgust and dissmell. And take some time to reflect on your own behavior and to think about any personal habits or qualities that you may want to change, improve or mitigate. Your power to mold your child’s attitudes, emotions and behavior is so great that it is wise to try to make sure you are transmitting messages that you want your child to receive.

First time moms often experience a kind of déjà vu. When I asked a friend if she was aware of how much children identify with and imitate their parents she exclaimed: “It’s so true — now that I have Clöe, I realize how much I am like my parents, how much I absorbed from them. These are things that I was only vaguely aware of — and some of them are not so good. But now I see how I get agitated over small things like my mom and how I tune out like my Dad. I hope I can stop being so much like my parents so Clöe won’t learn the same bad habits from me.”

Luckily people can change and grow. I am reminded of a famous Hall of Fame hockey player who used to rack up 200 penalty minutes a year. He was a notorious brawler. Eventually he married and had a daughter. When she was around three years old, she started watching him play on TV. He’d never felt the slightest compunction before about his on-ice behavior, but one day she asked, “Daddy, why do you fight so much?” Suddenly he was horrified at the thought that she was seeing him hit other players and get into fistfights. So he changed how he played. From that day on he was more contained on the ice; in fact he won several league awards for sportsmanship and leadership and his reputation as a player didn’t suffer at all. He credits his daughter with teaching him two valuable lessons, one about being a parent and the other about playing hockey.

While you may try to modify your less desirable traits, your need to be aware that your most muted, hidden emotions and unconscious actions may be coming through loud and clear. Infants can pick up aspects of your emotions, worldview and physical actions that you may not even be aware of consciously. For example, some parents who profess open-mindedness, but are actually intolerant or prejudiced, often end up with equally intolerant kids. The children may hear lip service given to civil rights, for example, but the message that some people are inferior comes across in gestures, expressions and word choices. Children adopt the same prejudiced point of view, even if they are too young to actually know what it means. We had a neighbor when we were first married who was cordial and well mannered but filled with all kinds of biases about people. In casual conversation he’d say things like, “you know how the

[fill in an ethnic or racial group] are,” or “that was as dirty as a [fill in an ethnic or racial group].” It was shocking to her his three-year-old son would mouth the same upsetting stereotypes.

This can be a problem because developmentally kids have a tendency to create cliques, to include or exclude others. They have a strong inclination to repeat the familiar and enjoy matching up things that seem to have similar patterns — just think about how many times your child can watch her favorite video and how she enjoys a particular game or puzzle. But kids also have a strong interest in novelty and new stimulus which can provide balance.

There have been some interesting and successful attempts to counter prejudice in young children. A wonderful book, “You can’t say, ‘You can’t play,’ tells the story of what happened in an elementary school when a teacher decided to make it a rule that no child could tell another that he or she was excluded from a group activity. All the kids — including those that were sometimes singled out as different because of race, appearance, or behavior — were to be included. At first, many children resented the rules, and they wrestled with issues of inclusion, exclusion, rejection and fairness. But over time they discovered that they could enjoy everyone’s company and learn from those kids who were different. The class developed much more harmony and fewer cliques.

Imitation: Another reason not to abuse

A child who is hit or otherwise abused is likely to have many negative feelings of anger, distress and fear stirred up and these interfere with healthy, normal development. In addition, an abused child may also adopt the very behavior that is hurting him and become abusive himself. Hitting may be seen as a normal and acceptable way to solve problems and get what he wants. And not only will the child become mean to others, he may become mean to himself. Abused children often turn the impulse to hit onto themselves and adopt various self-destructive behaviors and relationships.

Your child wants to be like you, but she is different!

Parents gain a great deal by recognizing how much their children want to be like them, but they also need to remember how un-like them their child is. These differences are not just matters of taste and pace and different strokes for different folks, but also of age-related mental abilities. Young children do not have the same capacities as adults to understand and remember what is safe and what is not, what can be played with and what cannot, and so on. They simply haven’t developed the impulse control or cognitive abilities to understand that they are not supposed to be playing with electric wires or the contents of the refrigerator. This can cause a lot of frustration in parents who aren’t aware that it is a natural and normal stage of development, best managed by offering the child other equally intriguing alternatives to play with, not a scolding or worse.

As your child grows older:

Your child’s impulse to identify with you does not stop with childhood. You can continue to use it to help your child navigate successfully through adolescence and into adulthood. With teens, lessons in moderation and responsible behavior, respect for one’s own health, and an interest in ideas and other people are often best transmitted through example instead of words — particularly if they learned through example as infants. That doesn’t mean that identification will make it easy to teach your teen to act wisely or to dial down impulsiveness. Much of adolescent behavior is the result of a struggle between a teen’s desire for independence, on the one hand, and closeness to parents on the other. It turns out you are more of a role model than you may know, and it can have far reaching benefits to your child and to you as well.

A friend of mine found he was constantly getting into verbal fights with his teenage son because the boy would borrow hats, ties, jackets and coats without asking. It was only when I suggested that perhaps his son was simply trying to get close to his Dad, to be like him, that the father was able to see the nice side to having his closet plundered and to appreciate his son’s well-meaning though irritating behavior. There were a lot fewer fights after that, although the father did have to struggle to get his son to learn to ask before taking the clothing. In time, they even went shopping together and have started spending some more time together playing sports. “I never expected to be so close to Sean at this age,” he says now. “I just thought I’d be the enemy until he was about 25. I can’t tell you how glad I am that I took the time to understand what was behind his raids on my closet.”

Teenagers borrow their parent’s clothing, wear makeup like an adult, try out adult experiences such as drinking and sex, often because they want to identify with their parents, for good or for bad. They also search for mentors and idealized heroes that help them define their own personalities more clearly during the upheavals of adolescence. This is all part of a complicated pattern of identification and imitation. So take a deep breath, and remember, when you mess up, it’s just one more opportunity to help your child learn decision-making, how to apologize, and humility. You’ll discover that there are a lot fewer parenting mistakes, if you just make them part of the learning experience.