Monday, July 2, 2012

When Washing a Car is More than Just Getting it Clean

Suggest to a teenager that he or she should wash Mom’s car and you can just imagine the reply, with pursed lips, eye-rolling, and heavy-hearted harrumphing. Suggest the same to a toddler—as I did the other day while babysitting my twin grandchildren—and the result is excited compliance. The contrast is enough to make one wonder why something that is so clearly unwanted work at one age is such a delight at another. The former is too complex for a simple blog entry, so let’s focus on the latter.

The reason lies in the fact that (a) the human ability to imitate is deeply ingrained and (b) meeting challenges at any age brings a sense of well-being. Let’s address them in order. Even 1-day-old human babies are capable of imitating simple facial gestures they see Mom or Dad make—like sticking out one’s tongue or pursing one’s lips. This ability is astonishing given that babies this young have never even seen their own tongues or lips! How do they do it? Neuroscientists have discovered over the last decade that we are all born with a type of cell in the brain called a “mirror neuron,” a cell whose job it is to both register what we see others do and then mirror those actions. Voila! Imitation!

And what a handy tool imitation is. From the very earliest years, children learn tons and tons of important skills by engaging the ability to imitate---including how to feed themselves, use signs to communicate, learn words, sing songs, put on their own clothes, throw balls—and on and on and on.

What about “b,” the satisfaction of a job well-done. Again, this is something humans are born with. Even very young babies work hard to reach goals—whether it’s successfully getting spoon to mouth, communicating with signs or words, singing songs, getting dressed, or throwing a ball. In other words, the ability to imitate and the desire to meet a challenge work in tandem to help each of us develop the skills we need to survive in complex human culture.

This brings us back to why washing Mom’s car was so exciting to my twin toddler grandchildren, Nate and Olivia. Quite simply, they were reveling in the opportunity to imitate something they’d seen grown-ups do and in the fact that doing so provided them with a sense of being a bit more grown up themselves. They had a “job” to do and doing it was satisfying!

Now, if only we could get our teenagers to feel the same way…..

Happy Signing (and don’t forget to visit us on Facebook)!


Linda Acredolo, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus, UC Davis
Co-Founder, The Baby Signs® Program

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