Thursday, February 17, 2011

Copy Cat

Rhubarb has an uncanny knack for copying.

When we first brought Rhubarb home, at three years of age, she copied everything we said and did.  This was equal parts sweet and unnerving.  Babies, of course, mirror the people around them, opening their mouths wide when mom does so, following dad's eye movement when he scans baby from head to toe.  We all laugh and cheer when a toddler repeats a word or copies a gesture.  It is endearing to watch as a baby learns and develops by mimicking the the people around her.  It is also how a baby learns to communicate.

It was less endearing, I shamefully and nervously confess, when Rhubarb, at three, copied everything I said about a half of a beat behind me.  Logically, I knew that she was learning a new language and attempting to assimilate into her new surroundings.  Emotionally, I was drained by it.  Imagine trying to have a conversation with someone and hearing your words repeated at full volume as you say them.

As time passed, Rhubarb started copying people in other ways.  If her brother started crying, for example, she started crying.  If a friend threw down into an all-out kicking and screaming tantrum, she followed suit.  She drew dozens of pictures that were copies of the one or two pictures her best friend had drawn. As she grew older still, her copying took the form of following what her friends and siblings did no matter the consequences.  On several occasions, she even refused her favorite food (pizza), claiming she hated it because the friend she was with also hated it.  Her copying went so far as to have her shooting herself in the foot.

By this time, I noted that she was no longer trying to figure out how to communicate, but rather how to fit in.

As Rhubarb started approaching her pre-teens, I grew nervous that all this copying could lead to trouble.  What if she mimics dangerous behaviors she sees in movies or reads about in books? What if she makes unhealthy choices because that is what the people she is with are doing?  Once, when she copied a friend's poor, unhealthy choice, I used the age-old parenting question: "If she jumped off a bridge, would you?"  She paused to think about it for a while and then just shrugged her shoulders.

Finally, and arguably worse, what if she suspends the development of her own identity by assuming a facade of the identities of others?

And tell me someone, I have wailed internally, is this a product of having spent the first three years of her life in desperate living conditions (a Haitian slum and a Haitian orphanage)!!!  Or do kids born into their families do this too?  There is not a lot written on the subject and I have yet to meet another parent with the same concern.  I, however, have logged a lot of hours worrying about Rhubarb's propensity to copy.

Recently, though, I am recognizing the many gifts inherent in proficient imitation.  Much of Rhubarb's musical ability can be attributed to her ability to perfectly echo the musicality of the pieces she has heard.  The girl can crescendo like a pro.  Though she missed the first semester of her dance classes (she signed up mid-year), she has already mastered the dances.  She can watch her teachers do the steps once and mimic them to a tee.  She is a marvel with babies because she is so easily able to impersonate the parenting she has witnessed.  Where she struggles academically, she can often times master the subject simply by copying the work as it is written.  She learned all about the pioneers by copying an entire book on pioneer living, a task she thoroughly enjoyed.

I would go so far as to say that imitation is in fact Rhubarb's primary learning style.  As a learning style, however, imitation is not typically celebrated, if it is ever acknowledged.  Indeed, it is discouraged, punished even.

Why?  Why isn't imitation considered a legitimate learning style for children over the age of four?  Copying doesn't have to be an unscrupulous act.  And, to be perfectly honest, sometimes, when it is, it might also prove beneficial.  When I was in Middle School, I was completely lost in pre-algebra.  Luckily, a boy who had very poor vision sat kitty-corner to me.  He wrote with very large print.  On tests, I could see his answers and was able to use them to deconstruct the problems.  In doing so, I figured out pre-algebra -- just not the way the teacher taught it.  Does the fact that I copied someone else's answers to reach my own level of understanding negate the fact that I had finally found a way to master the subject?

One of the benefits for our family of homeschooling is that my daughter can look at the answers when she is trying to figure out a problem.  She does this frequently in the same subject where it had once proved beneficial to me -- math.  Because of her freedom to look at the answers first, combined with imitating the method she learned in a math class last semester, she has quickly propelled herself from struggling with very basic math to enjoying proficiency in multiple-digit multiplication.

Of course, as with any learning style, there are certainly limitations to this one as well.  I do still worry that Rhubarb might copy the unhealthy choices of her friends.  We talk about choices and consequences pretty regularly in hopes that she will be well-equipped to surmount this particular obstacle when she is older.  Luckily, there have been plenty of opportunities for her to learn about consequences when the stakes are not that high. Furthermore, there are always going to be learning opportunities where imitation is not permitted, particularly should she choose to go to college.   We will have to consider that obstacle as we approach it more closely.  And many people, like myself in the early years, don't appreciate having someone mimic them.  She might run into some social labyrinths that she will need to carefully navigate.

My hope, for Rhubarb and for everyone struggling to identify their learning styles, is that we as a society can honor every type of learner, particularly those that have yet to be formally identified.  As a mother and home educator, I wish that information regarding imitation as a learning style had been available when Rhubarb was younger.   I might have been more understanding after Rhubarb drew that 274th copy of her friend's picture.  At the very least, I might have slept a little better.


mrs. roundy said...

So fascinating! While reading I was imagining all the amazing jobs she could have as an adult with a skill like that.

HotNerd said...

Software Engineer is a good copy-cat profession. Though I do plenty of "original work" day to day, there is a very strong culture for "Don't Rebuild the Wheel". Copy whenever you can!!

Except when there's a test... and the question is : "How do you build a wheel?"

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Sarah said...

I find this really fascinating. I'm not a copying learner when it comes to normal academics, those I have to do... Well actually I don't really know. Depends on what I'm doing I guess.
But with dance I'm really good with watching once and being able to do it.
There was a dance a couple years ago that I wasn't in that class but I LOVED the recital dance and ALWAYS watched whenever I could, well summer came after the recital and I knew it almost as well as some of the people who did it. It does help me to DO it a few times, but watching can be very beneficial for me!
Now academics are another story... I still have to kinda wing it sometimes in trying to find ways to make things stick...

Motherhood and More said...

I love the idea of being able to look at the answer while figuring out a problem. Some people do better deconstructing, at least for part of the learning process. The classical method of homeschooling is big on copywork, especially in the early years, in order to get used to the feel of good writing. It is a bit sad that we're so freaked out by copying because we equate it with cheating. Not really fair in many instances.

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