“Years, centuries, generations of invention and planning, may have gone to the development of the performances and occupations of the adults surrounding the child. Yet for him their activities are direct stimuli.”
- John Dewey, How We Think
There can be the tendency to think that children, regardless of age, have a “monkey see, monkey do” style of learning. Younger children mimic their parents and then as they grow up they start to copy friends, celebrities, teachers etc. When a child acts out in a way we do not approve of, we tend to think that there must be some bad outside influence that they are copying. When your teenage daughter breaks curfew, it must be because of that new boy she is dating. Or your son gets suspended from school, it is because he listens to too much Eminem.
However, this theory is an oversimplification of how children learn, and quite honestly a disservice to them. Children are just as intelligent as adults, they just lack the experience. As Mr. Dewey referenced, adult behavior is defined by the experiences of all the generations before us. Our parents influenced us and affect the way we influence the next generation. Yet for a child there is no shared history, our behavior to them is only in the present.
Therefore, instead of seeing our behavior/lessons/instruction as a compilation of our numerous experiences, they perceive it as something that has to be responded to immediately. They have no other reference point as they have no experience to relate it to. Nevertheless, in order to gain true knowledge, they must attempt to practice the behavior they see around them.
It is not a simplistic sense of imitation. That would not give a child a true familiarity with an experience; there would be no growth. Instead, they must try out what they see around them and receive feedback in order to determine the benefit of the behavior. Mr Dewey broke down the process to: Attention → Observation → Selection → Experimentation → Confirmation.
As we help the next generation grow and learn, we must remember that they have to experience life for themselves. We are tasked with empowering our children to become who they want to be.