Early Years, Vol. 27, No. 1, March 2007, pp. 3–17
Liking to be liked: imitation, familiarity
and pedagogy in the first years of life
University of Plymouth, Exeter, UK
This paper offers a review of the literature on the role of imitation in the earliest stages of social
interaction between babies and familiar partners. The review focuses on the ways in which
reciprocal imitation marks familiar relationships that provide special contexts for babies to engage
actively and exuberantly in the construction of a shared culture. Because adults’ perception of a
baby’s actions and intentions are filtered by the adult’s experience of living within a particular
culture, babies can obtain valuable information about this culture from the differences between
what they do and how familiar adults respond to them. As they become increasingly interested in
the social meaning of people’s behaviour, infants also become more sensitive about how their own
actions may be interpreted, showing pride and delight when their intentions are realised and
embarrassed withdrawal when their efforts fail. When very young children are observed in
unfamiliar contexts and when they are cared for and educated in professional settings, they may
have relatively few opportunities for lively, joyful exchanges with reassuringly familiar partners and
this can distort adults’ perceptions of ‘normal’ infant behaviour. It is argued that adults’ attentive
interest in mutually enjoyable exchanges with young children is an important difference between
humans and other apes and provides an essential foundation for pedagogy and for children’s active
participation in a shared culture.
Keywords: Imitation; Familiarity; Pedagogy; ‘Like me’; Emotions of companionship
The study of very young children’s abilities to imitate the facial expressions, gestures
and actions of others has recently become a focus for cross-disciplinary studies which
draw on psychology, sociology, neuroscience, anthropology, philosophy and other
disciplines to try to make sense of this facility (Hurley & Chater, 2005). In this
paper, I will argue that the imitative abilities of infants cannot be understood in
isolation from the cultural contexts in which they develop. What makes humans so
different from the other great apes is not just what individual infants are able to do,
but also what adults and infants like to do together. The same evolutionary processes
which led to the development of social groups, intentional communication, dance,
music and gossip also led us to enjoy conversational exchanges with our children,
*Faculty of Education, University of Plymouth, Douglas Avenue, Exmouth EX8 2AT, UK.
Email: [email protected]
ISSN 0957-5146 (print)/ISSN 1472-4421 (online)/07/010003-15
# 2007 TACTYC
4 R. Parker-Rees
exchanges in which we imitate them as much as they imitate us. The evidence from
research on imitation may help early years practitioners, and those who prepare
people for this crucial work, to understand the mechanisms at work in our
interactions with babies and young children but we should also acknowledge the
pedagogical importance of adults’ enjoyment of these conversations.
Shifting perspectives on infant imitation
When Meltzoff and Moore (1977) first presented evidence of newborn babies’
ability to imitate facial expressions, notably tongue protrusion, their findings met
with an unenthusiastic, even cynical response from a field which was still firmly
grounded in a Piagetian model of early infancy. As Meltzoff and his colleagues,
Gopnik and Kuhl, later observed (Gopnik et al., 1999), reluctance to acknowledge
the active role of babies in communication exchanges may have reflected the fact
that, in the 1970s, developmental psychology was very much on the outer fringes of
what was still a predominantly male discipline. One can understand how men might
continue to believe that the first months of life were dominated by reflexes and an
essentially passive accumulation of knowledge about the world, but for those who
have spent time caring for and engaging with a young baby, this view could feel
incompatible with their own experiences. Reddy and Trevarthen (2004) offer the
example of Professor Elizabeth Bates who, at a meeting of the British Psychological
Society in 1993, admitted that she had been sceptical about the possibility of
neonatal imitation until she experienced it first hand with one of her grandchildren.
Bates acknowledged that the phenomenological evidence of feeling that her
grandchild was indeed engaging her in a form of conversation proved more
convincing than any number of published research findings.
While some have been persuaded by the evidence of their own interactions with
children, others have been won round by evidence from research in neuroscience—
especially since the discovery, by Rizzolatti et al. (1996), of ‘mirror neurons’ in
macaque monkeys. Rizzolatti and his colleagues accidentally discovered that specific
neurons which fired when the monkeys grasped an object were also activated when
the monkeys saw the experimenters grasping ice-cream cones (Trevarthen, 2005).
The researchers went on to identify other mirror neurons which fired both when the
monkeys performed a specific action and when they observed the same action
performed by another monkey, or indeed by a human. Other researchers have gone
on to replicate and extend these findings—in humans as well as in monkeys (Fadiga
et al., 1995; Decety et al., 1997; Iacoboni et al., 1999). Although there is still much to
learn about how the mirror neuron system works, it is now generally accepted that it
does work and research on the physiology of imitation is challenging old assumptions
about the distinction between perception and action (Prinz, 2005a) and indeed
between self and others (Gallese, 2005).
Ironically, the discovery of the mirror neuron system in monkeys has been
accompanied by a growing realisation that imitation can be seen as an almost
exclusively human phenomenon (Tomasello, 1999; Donald, 2001; Zlatev, 2002;
Infants’ imitative ability in a cultural context 5
Garrels, 2004). As long as we assumed that imitation was a primitive, ‘monkey-see,
monkey-do’ response, we could dismiss it as being too trivial to merit further
research. It became much more interesting once we began to understand that adults’
and children’s imitation of each other’s behaviour was almost never seen even in our
closest relatives, the other great apes. Mutual imitation might have a key role in the
rapid evolution of human culture:
imitation actually leads babies to behave in new ways that are not genetically
determined and, in fact, to behave like the adults around them. Imitation is the motor
for culture. (Gopnik et al., 1999, p. 167)
Research on other animals has confirmed that several forms of behaviour
associated with imitation, have not been recorded in other species, except,
sometimes, in individuals which have been reared and intensively trained by
humans. Wild animals do not use pointing to show interest (though some apes can
be taught to do this) (Corballis, 2002); they do not practise skills (though humanreared bonobos have on rare occasions and Alex, a human reared African grey parrot
does practise new words—if these were first taught in the context of social
interaction with humans) (Pepperberg, 1999); they do not learn by imitation and
neither do they teach (though human-reared bonobos have been seen unsuccessfully
attempting to show wild-reared bonobos how to complete tasks) (Donald, 2001).
Perhaps most significantly for this paper, no other animals, even those who have
successfully been taught to use sign language or tokens to communicate with
humans, have ever been observed using these symbol systems to chat with each other
(Donald, 2001). The fact that human-reared animals frequently display skills which
have never been observed in the wild suggests that pedagogy, the sometimes
deliberate and sometimes unwitting efforts of adults to shape the behaviour of their
children, may explain why the emergence and persistence of culture has (so far) been
unique to human societies. Perhaps as a result of our heightened ability to infer what
other people know, think and believe, we have evolved a powerful predisposition to
enjoy communing with babies, especially our own, in ways which go beyond the
protective care shown by other species: most of us like babies and most babies like to
be liked by familiar adults.
If it acts like me, it likes me
Andrew Meltzoff has continued to research infant imitation for nearly 30 years and
has recently summarised the findings that have led him to develop his ‘Like me’
hypothesis (Meltzoff, 2005). He argues that babies are predisposed to focus their
attention on information that matches their own movements, information which is
‘like me’. A mobile suspended over a baby’s cot can become much more interesting,
for example, if it is attached to the baby’s leg, so that its movement is contingent on
the baby’s kicking. Not only will the baby explore and test this contingency with
vigorous bouts of kicking and rapt attention, but it may also begin to smile at the
mobile (Watson, 1979).
6 R. Parker-Rees
While mechanical devices such as a contingent cot mobile can provide some
measure of ‘like me’ information, the great majority will come not from objects but
from people, and not from just any people but specifically from people who are
actively and deliberately engaging with the baby (Meltzoff & Moore, 1999). Much as
the exaggerated intonation of infant-directed speech can help to make utterances
targeted at a baby stand out from the relatively flat contours of ordinary speech
between adults, the communicative behaviour of an engaged adult, one who is
responding to the rhythm, intensity and style of the baby’s own movements is
highlighted and marked as particularly interesting by this ‘like me’ quality. Research
by Cohn and Tronick (1983) showed that babies quickly become anxious when this
‘like me’ information is interrupted, as when a mother withholds engagement cues
by adopting a ‘still face’. Murray and Trevarthen (1985) also showed that babies’
responses to ‘live’ CCTV images of their mother engaging with them were very
different from their responses to delayed or recorded images which still showed their
mother engaging with them but now ‘out of synch’.
Meltzoff conducted a similar experiment but using real engagement between 14month-olds and two adults, one of whom actively imitated the child while the other
responded contingently (in time with the child’s actions) but not performing the
same actions as the child (Meltzoff, 1990). The children looked and smiled
significantly less at the merely contingent adult than at the more ‘like me’ one. They
also engaged actively with their imitator, deliberately varying their own movements
while closely monitoring the adult’s response. In another study, after noticing that 6month-old infants would often look at their mothers and smile after they had
successfully imitated an action (making a light come on by touching it with their
heads), Meltzoff observed that ‘there is a social-game quality to human interaction’
(Meltzoff, 2005, p. 59). This has obvious benefits for learning, as it helps to bind
adult and child into a mutually rewarding emotional engagement, suffusing learning
with an affective component which makes it much more effective as a cultural tool.
Toddlers are not simply learning machines, as some behaviourists (and even some
Piagetians) would seem to believe. Their activity, even with inanimate objects but
particularly with interested other people, is typically, though not universally and not
always to the same extent, emotional as well as ‘cognitive’ or ‘intellectual’. Several
studies have shown that babies do not tend to imitate the actions of mechanical
devices in the same way that they imitate human models (Meltzoff, 2005). Simon
Baron-Cohen (2003) has argued that we are all at different points on a systemisingempathising spectrum, with men being more likely to be predominantly systemisers
and women tending to favour empathising.
This suggestion clearly has implications for differences between the parenting
styles of fathers and mothers (and for the research interests of male and female
developmental psychologists) but it also highlights the fact that even babies may
display a wide range of different responses to social stimuli. For a social group as a
whole, however, a tendency for most babies to prefer interactions with people who
are interested in them, and who display this interest through contingent responses,
may confer an evolutionary advantage. As Kinsbourne (2005) points out, it may be
Infants’ imitative ability in a cultural context 7
unwise or even dangerous to imitate any and all available models. Infants’ choices
about how fully they will engage in imitative exchanges seem to be influenced by
their awareness of the extent to which a communication partner is ‘tuned in’ to their
own movements, rhythms and vocalisations. There is clearly a systemising
component to this ability to detect contingent behaviour but, for most children,
this is accompanied by an empathising connection which lifts the experience of
reciprocal communication to a different affective level: ‘By 14 months, infants
undoubtedly know that adults are not under their total control and part of the joy of
this exchange is the realisation that although the infant does not actually control the
other, nevertheless, the other is choosing to do just what I do’ (Meltzoff & Decety,
2003, in Garrels, 2004, p. 20).
The ability of most infants to express their own joy, interest and fascination
makes them particularly rewarding conversation partners. More experienced
and enculturated adults and older children are captivated by babies’ social
skills and willingly serve them as tutors, not in mechanical, systemised training,
but in delightful conversations fuelled by mutual enjoyment of generously
shared interest: ‘we would all prefer to be cared for by someone who enjoys our
company rather than by someone who acts out of grim duty’ (Noddings, 2002,
Adults act as social mirrors or cultural editors of infants’ actions
In choosing to do just what the infant does, adults, and especially doting parents,
hold up a ‘social mirror’ (Rochat, 2004) to the children with whom they interact.
Prinz (2005b) has suggested that this imitative mirroring allows infants to perceive
aspects of their own actions that are normally ‘filtered out’ in the early stages of
organisms are made for understanding the world surrounding them, rather than for
understanding themselves; that is, how their own bodies and their own minds work. For
instance, it has long been known that veridical perception relies on mechanisms that
subtract, from the total information available, any contributions that are due to the
perceiver/actor. (Prinz, 2005b, p. 181)
Our ability to subtract out our own actions allows us to maintain a stable perception
of our environment as we move around within it. We can differentiate between
perceptual changes resulting from our own movement, such as the saccadic
movements made by our eyes as we read, and those which are independent of our
actions, such as when an insect flies past us; however:
As a consequence of being mirrored by somebody else, the infant comes to perceive her
own actions through the other. It may be such attending to one’s own actions through
the mirror of somebody else that may counteract and eventually help to overcome the
inbuilt mechanism for cancelling the perceiver/actor and her contributions to the world
she is perceiving and acting upon. (Prinz, 2005b, p.182)
Recognising our own actions without simultaneously experiencing the familiar flow
of proprioceptive feedback about what our bodies are doing may result in a feeling of
8 R. Parker-Rees
unease similar to the embarrassment many people experience when they see
themselves on video or hear themselves on audio recordings. We can recognise
ourselves but what we see or hear feels oddly unfamiliar. Toddlers may also show
signs of embarrassment when they see themselves in a mirror (Reddy, 2000), but in
comfortable, scaffolded interactions with familiar partners, this unease is dispelled
by the pleasure that comes from being ‘liked’. Because people tend to become
entrained by the movements and rhythms of people they like (Dijksterhuis, 2005),
being imitated in this way shows us not only that the other person is like me, but also
that they like me or, at least, that they are empathising with me. A mirror image or a
video recording may copy my actions exactly but it cannot like me.
For most people, being ‘liked’ or imperfectly imitated by a communication partner
is emotionally rewarding (we like being liked), but when babies converse with adults
or older children, who are already well versed in the ways of their culture, they also
benefit from a powerful mechanism which supports their induction into culturally
valued ways of behaving. Affiliation to a particular culture entails a progressive
adjustment of one’s action and perception processes as a result of differential levels
of exposure to ‘normal’ (relatively frequent) and ‘unusual’ events. Language learning
provides a particularly clear example of this tuning process: ‘as children acquire a
vocabulary and see the world through the language they acquire, they learn not to
see it as well, for a way of seeing is also a way of not seeing’ (Eisner, 1990; emphasis
When adults engage in conversations or chats with babies, their interpretation of
the baby’s contributions is inescapably filtered by perception systems which have
been tuned by prior exposure to the kinds of experiences associated with a particular
culture. A fleeting twitch of the corners of the lips may be perceived as a social smile,
prompting the adult to respond with a full, even exaggerated, display of a ‘proper’
smile. Virtually any vocalisation which begins with a /m/ sound will be inescapably
pulled in by a perceptual attractor which will shape the mother’s response into
‘mum’ or ‘mama’, accompanied by plenty of encouraging, celebratory cues to mark
the pleasure and value attached to these sounds. Regardless of their intentions, the
cultural tuning of adults’ perception processes will tidy and smooth the baby’s
actions and sounds, assimilating them to a pre-existing cultural template. The adult
therefore serves as an ‘enhancing mirror’ (Trevarthen, 1995, p. 16) in which the
infant sees not an exact reflection, but a culturally edited, ‘retouched’ version of its
own actions. It is the combination of reassuring familiarity, resulting from the adult’s
efforts to affiliate with the baby, and stimulating novelty, resulting from the
differences between what the baby does and how the adult responds, which enables
babies to pick out valuable information about what matters in this particular cultural
context (Parker-Rees, 2004).
The benefits of repetition with variation: seeing the intention behind the act
Because infants enjoy the companionship and familiarity associated with seeing their
own behaviour returned to them with interest, they reward attentive adults with
Infants’ imitative ability in a cultural context 9
smiles, laughter and infectious joy, shaping the adults’ behaviour even as their own
behaviour is shaped by the adults’ editing. When adults find a form of interaction
that works, they will therefore be more likely to repeat it, giving babies the added
benefit of opportunities to find a pattern in a series of familiar, but not identical,
repetitions of a successful ‘play format’ (Bruner, 1983). Adults do not have to start
from scratch when it comes to finding what will appeal to babies because they are
likely to have been exposed to interactions between other adults and babies—both in
the flesh and in books, on TV and in other media. Every culture provides parents
with a ‘starter kit’ of games, such as ‘peekaboo’, giving and taking, boisterous jiggling
and swinging, funny noises and expressions, nursery songs and rhymes, which have
survived the rigorous processes of memetic selection as they have passed from
generation to generation. Each culture’s favoured styles of adult–child interaction,
for example, the extent to which the infant’s arousal is encouraged or damped down,
the degree of animation in voice and gestures and the nature and frequency of
physical contact, both emerge from and contribute to the more general behavioural
styles characteristic of the culture. Babies adopt, but also adapt, the patterns of
behaviour which adults share with them.
Every family has its own microculture of rituals and routines, around mealtimes,
bathtimes, bedtimes and playtimes, which offer infants frequent opportunities to
repeat familiar, culturally mediated patterns of interaction with a familiar partner.
This frequent repetition allows infants to construct mental models or ‘general event
representations’ (Nelson, 1986) that enable them to differentiate between
predictable (and therefore uninteresting) events and unexpected, novel or surprising
events, which merit more attention: ‘We are highly adaptive creatures. The
predictable becomes, by definition, background, leaving the attention uncluttered,
the better to deal with the random or unexpected’ (Ian McEwan, Enduring love, cited
in Wilson et al., 2005, p. 5).
One consequence of an increasing ability to predict how other people will behave
in a familiar context is that older infants begin to be able to pay more attention to
other people’s intentions. Gergely et al. (1995, in Gergely, 2002) have shown that by
the age of 9 months, infants will even appear to ascribe intentions to animated
shapes on a computer monitor. After seeing a small circle moving along and
‘jumping’ over a rectangle to ‘meet’ a large circle, they were shown two animations
in which the same circles featured, but without the rectangle ‘obstacle’. They looked
more intently at the animation in which the small circle followed the same path as
before (jumping over the place where the rectangle had been) than at the more
different animation, in which the small circle moved straight to the large circle. This
suggests that the infants were able to make allowances for the ways in which ‘reality
constraints’, such as obstacles, can change the form of action appropriate for
achieving a particular goal.
Just as adults perceive infants’ actions through the filter of perceptual systems
which have been tuned by exposure to a particular culture, so infants repeatedly
exposed to daily routines can begin to discriminate between incidental or accidental
‘noise’ in people’s behaviour and ‘information’ which is worthy of their attention.
10 R. Parker-Rees
Gergely et al. (2002) repeated Meltzoff’s experiment in which infants watch an adult
who makes a box light up by touching it with her head, except that one group of 14month-olds saw a slightly modified demonstration. Half of the children saw the
unusual action performed by a model who was holding a blanket around her
shoulders, so that her hands were not free. Many more children in this group used
their hands to press on the box, rather than their heads, suggesting that they were
imitating what they understood to be the model’s intention, rather than just
mimicking the action they had seen. Meltzoff (1995) has also shown that 18-montholds will imitate an action that a model ‘failed’ to achieve (e.g. pulling a toy
dumbbell apart), rather than simply copying the model’s unsuccessful actions.
Other studies have examined the extent to which infants are influenced by a
model’s explicit verbal cues to differentiate between intended and unintended
actions. Carpenter et al. (1998) showed 14- and 18-month-olds an adult who
performed two actions on an object, saying ‘There!’ while performing one and
‘Whoops!’ while performing the other (the order being varied). After the second
action coloured lights, would suddenly turn on. All of the infants imitated the
‘intended’ (‘There!’) action significantly more than the unintended (‘Whoops!’) one,
suggesting that their attention was focused on making sense of what the model was
‘trying’ to do rather than simply repeating what the model did. Want and Harris
(2001) also used a verbal cue, ‘Oops!’, when showing older (2.5 and 3.5 years)
children how a toy figure could be removed from a tube by means of a stick. Pushing
the stick down one end of the tube would push the figure into a trap, pushing from
the other end would successfully push the figure out. Showing the wrong method,
saying ‘Oops!’, and then showing the right method proved to be significantly more
effective (for the older children) than just showing the correct method or a control
condition in which the stick was moved outside the tube. A later, similar study
allowed Harris and Want to show that a single exposure to the incorrect method
(‘Oops!’) followed by the correct method was significantly more effective than
repeated independent trial and error (Harris & Want, 2005).
While these studies do show how infants might derive pedagogical benefits from
social cues that help them to filter irrelevant actions out of their imitations, they still
suffer from the shortcomings identified by Donaldson (1978), in her criticism of
Piaget’s clinical experiments. When children are taken to laboratories and exposed
to carefully controlled and systemised peculiar events, they may reveal something
about how their minds work in this sort of isolated context, but we should be wary
about assuming that this is how their minds will work in the more normal context of
lively interaction with familiar confederates.
Emotions of companionship: conditions for playful exchanges
In real-world contexts, interactions with other people are suffused with emotional
significance as we carefully monitor not just what other people do but also how they
react to what we do and to what other people do. As Reddy and Trevarthen (2004)
have observed, from the age of about 6 months infants become considerably more
Infants’ imitative ability in a cultural context 11
self-conscious than neonates about their participation with others in imitative
engagements. As they turn from self-absorbed fascination with the development of
control over their bodies to a new interest in whatever interests their communication
partners (evidenced in social referencing and joint attention), they also become
acutely aware of how their own actions are appraised by others:
Cultural learning and everything to do with education and shared artificial knowledge
and skills involves communication in relation to a joint and mutual experience of the
world of objects, and that is where you get these very powerful emotions of pride, which
reflect the appraisal of other persons—pride in knowledge and pride in skill, and shame
in not being thought master of such things, to be thought unskilled or ignorant. These
emotions of companionship are crucial in the development of happy self-confidence at
any age. (Trevarthen, 2005, p. 97)
There are interesting parallels between these emotions of companionship and the
cues used by Carpenter et al. (1998) and Want and Harris (2001); ‘There!’ can be
seen as marking pride in successful action and ‘Whoops!’ signals a degree of
embarrassment or shame when an intended outcome is not achieved. But these
exclamations are no more than vestiges of much more powerful emotional forces that
are particularly associated with infants’ confident interactions with familiar and fully
engaged partners: ‘There is a kind of heroic glee in the navigating 6-month-old’s
spirit—an infectious pride signalled by presentation of previously imitated acts in
clever, exaggerated and surprising ways for the appreciation of others’ (Trevarthen,
2005, p. 97).
Such joyful inventiveness may play an important part in what makes human
culture so adaptable and so responsive to new ideas. Vygotsky (1988, p. 64) argued
that: ‘The very essence of cultural development is in the collision of mature cultural
forms of behaviour with the primitive forms that characterise the child’s behaviour;
and Donald (2001, p. 153) echoed this idea in his claim that; ‘the creative collision
between the conscious mind and distributed cultural systems has altered the very
form of human cognition.’ When fresh new minds collide (and collude) with the
cultural systems that shape the behaviour of people around them, they do not simply
mimic what they observe. Instead, they find or construct form and structure in the
patterning of their experience and, given propitious social contexts, they delight in
trying out their personal perspective on other people:
Babies come already ‘designed’, or ‘programmed’, to be deeply interested in the people
and world in which they find themselves. They are incredibly observant and selective, as
well as being extremely clever at interpreting what they witness. They learn best by
playing with things they find in their world, and above all by playing with the familiar
people who love them. (David et al., 2003, p. 150)
Children do not simply conform to the culture that surrounds them, they perform it
(Parker-Rees, 1999), communicating their own interpretation like a musician
performing a piece of music. Instead of passively copying what other people do,
taking up cultural habits as if they were a uniform, they adapt them, play with them
and dress up in them, and, in the process, encourage others to see new possibilities in
them. The creative process by which children make sense, rather than simply find it,
12 R. Parker-Rees
appears, however, to be particularly vulnerable to the kinds of social pressures
associated with unfamiliar environments or interactions with unfamiliar people.
Challenges and implications for researchers and professional early years
Because child development researchers seldom have time to develop a comfortable
familiarity with their subjects, ‘heroic glee’ is very seldom found in controlled
‘laboratory’ studies of infant behaviour. With a few notable exceptions from the
1980s (e.g. Tizard & Hughes, 1984; Stern, 1985; Dunn, 1988), and despite a
general trend towards the use of sociocultural models for understanding children’s
development, it is still difficult to find substantial studies which document very
young children’s participation in their natural habitat. As Engel (2005, p. 36) has
observed, ‘It is more respectable to study primates in their natural habitat than
human children in their homes’.
Even in the best-managed early years settings, it may also be difficult to achieve
the depth of shared experience and easy companionship which allows young children
to engage in bold, confident social participation. Allocating a key worker to each
child can certainly help both parents and babies to build trusting relationships with
professional carers (Goldschmied & Jackson, 2004) but this is not sufficient to
ensure that staff can regularly ‘find time to play, have fun, sing and laugh with young
babies’ (DfES, 2004, p. 5).
The issues for researchers and for practitioners are linked because lack of
experience of babies in their natural environment can lead to cultural assumptions
that filter adults’ perceptions of what counts as normal infant behaviour. Young
professionals whose only contact with children is in settings where staff are too busy
to nurture familiar relationships may have little experience of babies’ ‘full-on’
engagement in joyful interactions. When these practitioners come across reports of
laboratory studies which have been conducted with emotionally uncomfortable
children, they may therefore have little reason to challenge the limited view of
children’s potential which such studies can promote; and:
If we assume that the infant is unaware of our expectations or intentions we act
accordingly: we do not encourage the baby to cooperate with or play with our intentions
and expectations, and we do not engage with infants’ actions that may be attempts to
engage our expectations and intentions. For a playful parent, who enjoys the shared
emotions, this does not seem the right way to go. (Reddy & Trevarthen, 2004, p. 14)
One implication for the training and development of early years professionals is
that placement experience for the birth-to-3 stage should include opportunities to
spend time with parents and babies in home environments, or at least in
environments where parents and children can be seen engaging in confident,
playful interactions, as well as in professional settings. The English Early Years
Foundation Stage (EYFS) consultation document (DfES, 2006) encourages
practitioners to ‘find out as much as you can from parents and carers about young
babies before they join the setting, so that the routines you follow are familiar and
Infants’ imitative ability in a cultural context 13
comforting’ (p. 40), and to ‘find out from parents how they like to communicate
with their baby’ (p. 44), but valuable though such information may be, I am not
convinced that this will be sufficient to ‘recalibrate’ the perceptual tuning of early
years practitioners. Simply spending time with parents and children in a home
setting also may not be enough to change the way prospective early years
professionals think about the capabilities of babies. Susan Engel (2005, p. 42)
quotes a colleague who professed amazement at how little developmental
psychologists know about children, ‘even when they have some at home’, and
remember that Professor Elizabeth Bates was only able to recognize babies’ ability to
imitate when she observed imitation at first hand not with her own children, but with
It may be, however, that focused observation of babies’ interactions with familiar
adults in the home environment might help developing early years practitioners to
see and feel what babies can achieve, given optimum support. Direct, personal
experience of the close, familiar relationship which allows parents to understand and
support their young children may also contribute to a greater respect for parents.
There is always a danger that the professional development of early years
practitioners can result in somewhat critical attitudes to the parenting skills and
practices of ‘untrained’ parents and much work with very young children is in
situations where professionals can be seen as ‘taking over’ from parents. A
phenomenologically grounded, experiential understanding of the importance of
babies’ interactions with familiar adults might help practitioners to see that a very
important part of their role is valuing and supporting relationships between parents
and children (Barnes et al., 2006). Promoting parents’ understanding of the
pedagogical value of enjoying their children’s company should be an important part
of the early years professional’s role.
While commercial constraints and pressure of other tasks may make it difficult for
early years professionals to re-create the ‘attentive love’ (Noddings, 2002) which can
flourish in the depth of shared experience between parent and child, there is still much
that can be done to support the development of empathising as well as systemising
skills in early years settings. What such settings lack in opportunities for intimate
interactions between a child and a familiar adult can, to some extent, be compensated
by greater opportunities for children to practise getting to know each other.
Vivien Gussin Paley (Paley, 2001) has written a short but powerful account of
how one teacher, Mrs Tully, used ‘doing stories’ to help a group of 2-year-olds’ to
develop their own, shared culture and, in the process, to discover, assert and share
their own identities. The children would dictate stories to Mrs Tully throughout the
day and then, in the afternoon, they would all gather together to ‘do’ the stories, in
the manner Mrs Tully had learned from Paley’s book, Wally’s stories (Paley, 1981).
This involved Mrs Tully reading the story while the ‘author’ performed it in front of
the other children, sometimes recruiting some or all of them as co-players or props.
This was not, however, the end of the story. Once the author had performed, any of
the other children could perform their own version of the story and sometimes every
child would offer his or her own interpretation, as when the story was just the one
14 R. Parker-Rees
word, ‘Mama’. As each child performed, they revealed aspects of themselves, as we
all do whenever we tell a story in our own way, but they also contributed to the
evolution of a shared understanding of the story and of their individual relationships
with it, an understanding which became part of the culture of this community of
two-year-olds. As Mrs Tully said: ‘When my babies do their stories, that’s when they
really see each other … that’s what we need to go after in school, the seeing and the
listening to each other’ (Paley, 2001, pp.11–12).
Babies can imitate movements and recognise when their own movements are
being imitated but these older children are already imitating stories and observing
what is revealed when different people each imitate a story in their own, unique way.
Adults engage in social conversation, sharing and responding to anecdotes both as a
way of getting to know each other and as a way of maintaining social relationships.
Kinsbourne (2005, p. 170) observes that this sort of ‘conversing’ has a ‘powerful
affiliative effect that binds people together socially and gratifies them emotionally’.
Like Mithen (2005), Kinsbourne suggests that this emotional function of ‘entrained’
or coordinated interaction developed before the emergence of language; we danced
together and sang together well before we started to talk to each other. Indeed, as
Rochat (2004) has argued, babies are social creatures well before they are able to
construct an individual identity of their own. It is perhaps odd, then, that our
understanding of pedagogy is still dominated by a rather narrow, systemising
approach to the assembly and profiling of individual intellectual abilities. We have
tended to assume that learning by imitation is a one-way process in which the learner
obtains information from a more competent model, and in which the relationship
between learner and model is of little or no importance. Research on reciprocal
imitation with familiar partners reminds us that our delight in the company of other
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