Toddlers' imitation predicts well-developed conscience


Maybe the old adage, "Do as I say, not as I do" got it wrong. A more accurate version would be, "Do as I do, and you will come to do as I say."

A recent study tested whether naturally-occurring differences in how 1-year-olds imitate their mothers can predict which children will show a well-developed conscience as preschoolers. The study, led by David Forman, Concordia University in Montreal, found evidence that babies who enthusiastically imitate their parents develop a sense of right and wrong earlier than those who don't. The report appears in the October issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the American Psychological Society.

Imitation was measured when children were 14 and 22 months old. Mothers demonstrated simple actions and asked their children to copy them, and researchers noted how much, and how eagerly, each child imitated his or her mother. Children were tested again at 33 and 45 months old, this time for conscience development. Enticed with gift-wrapped prizes, children played games designed to be impossible to win by following the rules and were watched to see whether they cheated. In another test designed to measure guilt, an apparently valuable object fell apart as soon as each child handled it.

The results were dramatic. Children who eagerly imitated their mothers were more likely to follow the rules and more likely to show guilt when they broke something than were children who didn't, up to two-and-a-half years later. The authors suggest that eager imitation reflects a relationship in which both mothers and children are highly responsive to each other, and that this kind of relationship can give conscience development a boost.

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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