Monkey See, Monkey Do: Who Are Children Mimicking?

Monkey see, monkey do, is a saying derived from the 1920’s that refers to the act of mimicry, usually with limited knowledge and/or concern for the consequences.

I’ve worked with kids for 20 years and it is very clear that children take on the behaviours of the adults with whom they are the closest. As a new stepmom, I’ve even observed this in my own family and it is amazing to see it play out in front of your eyes – they copy phrases, mannerisms and general attitudes toward life and relationships.

Children are looking at all the adults around them all the time for how to behave, treat others and live and be in their communities. They are watching their parents, teachers and family friends constantly. In fact, they remember a lot more than you might want them to.

Adults often say, “do what I say and not what I do.” Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Children will always DO what the adults closest to them will do. The important thing to note is that this applies to both good and not so good behaviour. They mimic their parents on a consistent basis and if you can step outside of the situation and observe, you will watch them say and do exactly what their parents do…often verbatim.

So what’s the problem? There are increases of bullying, poor communication skills, kids feeling isolated and alone, stress and depression. It is not by mistake that these things are happening. We have young people who grow up not always learning the best coping skills, self-care strategies and social emotional skills.

Why? Because there is not enough emphasis on this in school and kids don’t always get that knowledge at home. So unless a child is engaged heavily in an afterschool program, summer camp or some other sort of leadership activity, they may be hard pressed to fully develop the skills needed to lead a balanced and emotionally healthy life.

What Actions Can Parents and Educators Take?

  1. Realize that the kids around you are watching you constantly.
  2. Choose your words and actions carefully in their presence.
  3. If you need to argue with someone or raise your voice, do it out of sight/earshot of the child/children.
  4. Role model the behaviour you want your children mimicking – actually do it yourself.
  5. Talk to your kids about why those good behaviours are beneficial – use those moments as ‘teachable moments’.
  6. Discuss as a family/classroom the kinds of behaviours that the group feels is optimal. Be sure to discuss WHY.
  7. Treat others the way you want to be treated and discuss that concept with your kids.

From my experience the most important strategy is to actually behave the way you want your kids to behave. It is so simple and yet so many adults have a hard time doing this. If this is you, don’t beat yourself up over it. Just begin to increase your awareness that the kids in your life are watching, so you should think twice before you act.

Here are some everyday things you can do to demonstrate positive behaviour in front of your children:

  • Smile at a stranger
  • Let someone in during busy traffic
  • Show affection to your spouse
  • Call your mother/father and take interest in their lives
  • Spend time with family
  • Show care for plants and animals
  • Keep your room tidy with the bed made
  • Eat healthy food
  • Help your neighbours
  • Don’t smoke
  • Don’t drink excessively
  • Don’t text and drive
  • Don’t argue over petty things
  • Organize your life so you are not stressed
  • Exercise
  • Spend quality time with your kids
  • Tell people who are important in your life that you appreciate them

These are just a few examples of things you can do to role model good behaviour for the children in your care. As you do them around your kids actually talk to them about what you are doing and why it is important – take the opportunity to find “teachable moments” in everyday life.

Start to be aware of your own actions and the actions of your kids – notice the coorelation between the two! So you might want to think carefully about the actions you want them to mimic, because they are mimicking you whether you like it or not.