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On Children and Imitation: #imitation2014

My wife, Bethany, recently bought an old window – complete with glass panes and a seriously heavy-duty wood frame, white paint chipped and fading – into which she plans to insert family photos (a new take on the traditional family photo collage). So we’ve been discussing the best way to hang it, keeping in mind that it weighs about 35 lbs.

Yesterday, while we talked, I knocked on the wall to find the studs (I guess I need a stud-finder) then returned to my seat at the dining room table. But as soon as I sat down, our son, Coulter, who will be two this Saturday, purposefully made his way to the wall, knocked twice in one spot, then knocked again twice in a spot about 2 feet to the left, and then knocked again twice more in a spot two feet further to the left. Then he turned and looked at me and said “ok”.

He’d found something that satisfied him, I guess.

There are three things Coulter loves above all else: His trio of blue and white stuffed bunnies (whose scars and stains bear witness to how rarely they leave his side), books, and when dad mows the lawn.

We often hear him in his bedroom or on the couch, a stack of a dozen books by his side, babbling his way through each of them, seemingly quite confident that he’s reading exactly what the words say.

And he has his own little lawn mower, a green and yellow plastic thing with its own pull cord and a red gasoline tank that makes a hilarious clicking noise as he pushes it through the grass behind me.

Perhaps above all else, being a parent has revealed to me just how much of learning is imitation-based. Obviously we learn to speak and walk and read through imitation. But we also learn to focus our creativity and to work hard and to pray by imitation. We learn to express affection by imitation and, yes, we learn how best to express frustration through imitation too.

All of these are things we do to some extent or another quite naturally. But the specific ways we learn to do them are affected in large part by the people whom we imitate.

This, as a father and as a teacher, is a little bit terrifying.

As my dad wrote for his piece in the upcoming edition of our magazine, “The most important thing every teacher should understand is that teaching is the art of being imitated. If you want a student to perceive a truth, you have to embody it. That’s what teaching is. When you teach, whether you intend to or not, you are saying to your students, ‘imitate me’. Make yourself worthy of imitation. You can teach with any method you like, but the only way your student will become truly virtuous is if you, as his teacher or parent, embody Truth.”

This is one of the many reasons we have chosen imitation as our theme for the next 12 months, including for the 2014 conference. It’s such a fundamental, consistent part of educating and being educated that it’s worth thinking about deeply.

And one of the ways we want to think about it is by examining the many ways children imitate.

You can help us do this.

We’ve set up the hashtag you see on the image at the top of this post, which can be used on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, by which you can share photos of your children and students imitating. Click on that hashtag in one of those social media services and you’ll see all of the photos folks are posting.

So next time you see your son imitating his older brother at play, or you find your daughter imitating you in the garden snap a quick photo and tag it with hashtag #imitation2014. Not only will it be great fun to see all the hilarious and sweet (and perhaps even devious) ways kids learn through imitation but it will help us think through – and be more conscious of – the important and profound role imitation plays in learning of all kinds. And, hopefully, along the way, we’ll be continually convicted by the ever-present fact that our children and students are always watching.

You’re taking dozens of photos of your kids with your smart phones anyway, right? Why not be purposeful with where you post them!

Here’s one from me on Instagram.

Here’s the Facebook hashtag.

Here’s the Twitter hashtag.

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