Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery right? Not if it’s coming from your copycat little sister, according to my oldest daughter. And not if you are a parent on the outside looking in at a kid you so desperately want to have the confidence to be her own person.
My youngest child and second daughter is 6 years old. She is a copycat, and her favorite person to emulate is her big sister — my oldest — who is almost three years older than she is. For years my youngest daughter has been watching and practicing whatever her big sister is up to. Everything, from breakfast cereal to favorite animals, has been fair game. It started with wanting to wear the same clothes as her sister, and then it progressed to choosing the same color as her favorite, liking and not liking the same foods, and adding the same toys to her Christmas list, despite them not really being toys she would enjoy playing with.
My daughter wanted and still wants to be like her big sister in many ways, so she copies her. And she does so while denying she is doing it.
My oldest child hates this, and I don’t blame her. It’s not really fair to my first born to feel suffocated by being copied at every turn. I know she wants her autonomy. She wants to be celebrated for her creativity and individuality. She doesn’t want to make a decision and then have someone else just quickly cling onto something she has given perhaps a lot of thought to. Not that braids versus pony tails is a major decision, but when you are 8 that’s a big deal and part of your gender expression. My daughter is not looking for her baby sister to walk to school with the same ‘do, thank you very much.
I don’t love the fact that my kid is a copycat either. It’s super annoying to hear my oldest scream “she’s copying me!” It takes everything I have to be patient when my younger kid gets her feelings hurt because she is (rightfully so) being told to think on her own. Yet, these are normal, developmentally appropriate forms of mimicry — hero worship is one of the ways we figure out who we are. Also, watching others is a great way to learn patterns, behaviors, and important social skills.
I know part of her indecision and need to copy others is a manifestation of anxiety. She wants to fit in.
If you think about it, we are teaching our kids to mimic us all of the time. We smile so they smile back. We wave so they wave. We show them how to eat, talk, walk, and run. Repetition and imitation are used throughout a child’s life as they learn how to pick up after themselves, develop hobbies or learn a sport. Kids even mimic how to manage relationships from the people in their home and lives. The hope is that kids copy the good stuff. I also hope my kid learns, without awful consequences, that copying someone’s bad behavior won’t get you anywhere good.
And now that my youngest daughter is in school, I see her change her mind to do what the crowd or another child is doing. It’s maddening to watch her waiting to see what others will do before she makes up her mind about something. My youngest daughter tends to copy good traits and behaviors, but she is a follower. She loses the ability to think for herself in situations that get her in trouble too, and I worry that one day she will get hurt or into bigger trouble with longer lasting ramifications.
Instead of looking at why my kid was copying what seemed like all of the people all of the time, I would snap at her. I would side with my older child who was doing the thing I had hoped all of my kids would do: being herself. I was so desperate to get my younger daughter to not just think outside of the box, but to think for herself. I wasn’t looking at the emotional reasons my kid was a copycat, but I was worried that somehow her behavior was a reflection on me as a parent. What had I done wrong to not fill her with confidence and security? And what would people say when being a mimic got her into trouble?
I am better about handling the situation now because, after some observation, I know part of her indecision and need to copy others is a manifestation of anxiety. She wants to fit in. She struggles with creative thinking, which makes it hard for her to naturally develop certain social skills which come from free time and free play — both of which are difficult for her. She is getting better, but in the past instead of helping a friend build something with blocks, she would copy what she saw or just knock over someone else’s creation out of frustration. I also know she likes the attention, even if it’s negative. She is OK getting in trouble if she thinks someone she really likes will then take notice of her.
Now, instead of just telling her not to copy her sister or a friend, I ask her why she wants to do said thing or why she picked said item. I ask her if she had to choose something different what would it be. And I try to support her copying, too, if it means she made a good choice. I also reiterate that sometimes people like the same stuff. And that’s OK. This is to remind my oldest that practicing compassion is better than lashing out, and it’s a way to remind my youngest that it’s OK to still go with the flow while trying to feel like you fit in. Being an individual can be hard and scary work.
I want my daughter to think independently, but I don’t want her to feel like garbage while she is figuring out how to do it. I have to find a way to help her, without a clear example to follow. The first thing we each need to do is accept that this process will be uncomfortable, then trust that we will be fine.