How can we bridge the generation gap with our tech-savvy children and teens? How do we impart to them the best of human values– altruism, integrity, courage, passion, spirit and human love—when they are glued to a computer screen for hours a day? Do we just give up and hope they learn some decent principles from the Internet? Hmmmm! That seems a bit risky to me.
We must not forget that as human beings—the highest order of mammals (so far, at least)–we still have some tools at our disposal that give us a fighting chance of influencing the young. We impact our children in many ways—one of the most significant being the mammalian and human propensity for imitation. We copy each other. We all do it. We mimic one another’s gestures, tone of voice, dialect, behaviors and yes, even values. It is especially important for the very young but it continues into childhood, teen years and even adulthood. Babies imitate our silly faces. Children desperately want to do what their parents do whether it be cooking or fixing cars or, sadly enough, aggressive, demeaning words or behaviors toward other family members. Children follow the paths of their parents, for good or ill, and replicate their lives in uncanny ways.
Scientists have named this propensity for imitating each other “observational learning.” Kendra Cherry (August 24, 2016) describes it as observing the behavior of another being and then copying that behavior so that it becomes a part of one’s own repertoire. It is how children learn language, social skills, and an infinite number of actions that are essential to their development. Observational learning is subtle and it occurs largely under the radar of verbal communication, lecturing and other typical snooze-inducing behaviors that parents employ. It is like my mother always said: “What you are speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you are saying.”
How does observational learning happen? The jury is still out though neuroscientists have identified nerve cells in the brain called motor neurons which, as the name suggests, allow us to mirror or copy one another’s behavior. The research at this point has been done largely with lower primates so it is still unclear how this works with humans. But we know it happens and it is powerful.
Observational learning is a mammalian activity. It doesn’t occur across a computer screen. It is based in behavior, emotion, and physical presence and it develops more readily as a function of warmth, assurance and protection. It is also a channel through which we can influence our children by the example we set. Let’s say we are living together—children and one or both parents—and we eat one meal a day as a family. (If this doesn’t happen perhaps we can arrange to touch base for a few moments every day.)In that time, away from computer screens, we communicate about the day. Families do this in a whole bunch of ways. For us it was a touchy-feely time but there are many avenues for good conversation. We can talk about cars or the football team or an upcoming homework project. But we are present and in that time children can see us as competent adults—people they want to emulate.
We are still the most important role models in their lives. It is not their peer group or their coach or their online chat buddies. They are looking to us—perhaps discreetly but intensely—as the examples, for good or ill, of how they will live their lives.
Ellen Toronto is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Spring, Texas and has been practicing since 1980. In 2017, she was elected a Fellow in Psychoanalysis by the American Psychological Association. In 2016, Dr. Toronto's practice was recognized as one of the top Ann Arbor Psychology practices. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Michigan. Dr. Toronto is married to Robert Toronto, Ph.D., and together they have four sons and eleven grandchildren.