Your baby learns indirectly by observing your actions and then mimicking them. At a very young age, she imitates your facial expressions and gestures, and she learns language by copying the words that she hears. These imitations can become lifelong behaviors.
Because she experiences her world with an open and fresh approach, your child does not know how to discern positive and negative actions. Everything that you do in her presence can easily make a lasting impression on her, even after long intervals of absence of the behavior.
She may store an image in her memory and then retrieve it when she is in a similar role or situation. For example, as a parent, you may unexpectedly say or do things the way that your mother or father did. Your child most readily does as you do, not as you say. She is always observing you and remembering what she sees and hears.
Parents also unconsciously and unintentionally imitate their babies, which can create a reciprocal game of rapport and mutual imitation that comes naturally. When your baby smiles at you and you smile back, she smiles again. You clap your hands, she claps hers, and then you clap yours again.
Your child also learns from the interaction of her peers and other caretakers. Imitative learning tends to increase when your baby is in a positive, nurturing, familiar environment, when she has received rewards for imitating in the past, and when she is in the presence of an admired authority figure. When your child watches violent behavior, memories of the violent images can influence her to have aggressive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
Rahima Baldwin Dancy, author of You Are Your Child’s First Teacher: Encouraging Your Child’s Natural Development from Birth to Age Six, writes about a Waldorf style of understanding child development from birth to three years:
“Every action, every sight, sound, or other sense impression, every emotion from those around the child is taken in and absorbed right in the child’s inner being. Even when not obviously imitated or reproduced in the child’s actions, these impressions become indelibly etched in the child’s nervous system and can affect the development of the whole organism. Young children do not have the buffers and filters that adults have to block out impressions. Indeed, all that babies can do to stop the flow of impressions is to go to sleep” (Mothering Magazine 1987).
Teachers at Waldorf preschools, which are based on Rudolf Steiner’s philosophy of education, try to act in ways that are both worthy of imitation and instructive. Waldorf teachers model behavior and speech that they wish to teach.
Learning through observation is subtle but powerful. Because this method of learning is primarily reactive, it involves lower mental functions. However, when a child decides to go against her role model, she may be either reactive or intentional.
If she rejects her parent’s behavior and reacts by doing the opposite without thought, then she is using a lower mental function. If she dislikes her parent’s behavior and intentionally chooses an alternative, then she is using a higher mental function.