Imitation is the motor for culture. By imitating what the particular adults around them do, young children learn how to behave in the particular social world—the particular family or community or culture—they find themselves in. They can draw a bow or dress a doll or even learn such bizarre cultural rituals as pulling a piece of toothed plastic through their hair every morning and rubbing a stiff brush against their teeth every night.
It may seem that we learn about other people by comparing them with ourselves. But, in fact, the research suggests that we also learn about our own minds by observing other people.
The drive to experiment seems to be innate…What are built in are techniques for discovering all the things that aren’t built in. Experimentation, in children or in scientists, provides us with a continuous series of shocks, little unexpected confrontations with nature.…When we actively experiment on the world, we are really and truly interacting with a real world outside ourselves, and we can’t tell beforehand what lessons that real world will teach.
Children’s brains and minds are radically different from ours, so their experience must be too.
Just as babies play with the world, testing out their hypotheses on the objects around them, scientists perform experiments. Of course, the scientists’ toys are a lot more expensive. All babies need to find out about objects is a set of mixing bowls; to find out about neutrinos you need, quite literally, an act of Congress.
…it’s not that two-year-olds pretend because we give them dolls; instead we give them dolls because they love to pretend. Even without toys toddlers are just as likely to turn common objects—food, pebbles, grass, you, themselves—into something else. And even in cultures where pretend play is discouraged, rather than cultivated…children continue to do it anyway.
The most interesting thing about babies is that they are so enormously interested; the most wonderful thing about them is their infinite capacity for wonder.
Conventional moral and political systems are all about the stern and earnest business of human work. They are about how individuals and societies should think, plan, and act in order to accomplish particular goals. But children and childhood are all about play. Why do children play? And how should we value play, not only personally, but morally and politically, too?
Infancy and intimacy go together— we hold our babies close, literally and metaphorically.
Although we may not be as smart as babies are, the new evidence suggests that we may be smarter than we sometimes think. The reason we don’t learn more may be exactly because we have already learned so much. The wiring we acquired in childhood literally as well as metaphorically tells us most of what we need to know, it works staggeringly well most of the time, and we are designed in a way that makes those successful programs difficult to change. Even as adults, however, when we face new problems, unexpected environments, or unusual inputs, we seem to be able to change the wiring once more.
Human babies who see an adult use a tool in a particular way will learn how to use that tool themselves. And by imitating the babies’ actions, often with some grown-up variation, the grown-ups can show the babies what they ought to be doing. Imitation is an innate mechanism for learning from adults, a culture instinct. In fact, recent research suggests that most other animals don’t learn through imitation in this way.
Even babies and very young children are sensitive to social norms and traditions and quickly adopt them from their caregivers.