Teaching With Both Hands

Marc Romanelli | Digital Vision | GettyImages

As a teacher, I know a thing or two about learning.

Thing 1. Children learn through observation from a very young age, and they do not need to understand what they are seeing for learning to happen. A 1988 study in Developmental Psychology showed that babies as young as nine months imitate actions hours after they first observe them; a more recent study in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology reported that toddlers as young as two learn social skills by imitating a model. (Have you ever seen a child pushing a toy shopping cart alongside his mother’s cart down a grocery store aisle? What about giving a dog a “time out” for chewing up a slipper?)

Thing 2. Parents are children’s first and most influential teachers.

Recently I passed a young woman pushing her daughter in a stroller on a path near my home. It is a well used walkway that runs along a shallow creek cherished by neighborhood children for the treasures it hosts: thumbnail-sized frogs, skittering crawfish, the occasional garter snake, and countless snails and other invertebrates.

This area is rich in opportunities to explore, share, learn, discover, and squeal: a pocket nature museum with unlimited reasons for kids to ask questions and for parents to wish they hadn’t skipped their life science labs in high school.

The woman pushed the stroller with one hand, and in her free hand she held her smartphone. And naturally, the phone held her attention as her thumb skittered across the screen.

And the child? Her small thumbs rubbed clumsy patterns across the surface of a plastic toy smartphone, the fraternal twin of her mother’s phone.

Both were silent, staring at their screens. Mama and her Mini-Me! Adorable, right?

I wanted to give that woman’s phone the back of my own hand.

More often than not, the most powerful lessons children learn from their parents are the result not of lectures or books or visits to a riparian habitat, but of modeling: lessons about respect, responsibility, empathy, charity, fairness, self-control, courage, and intention. Of course, children are not discriminating; they observe and learn ALL behaviors, not just the “good” ones their parents intentionally model.

So what did this child learn from her mother that day? Not the value of exploring a “foreign” land, or of listening to an orchestra of birds and insects, and definitely not of relishing time spent with a loved one.

She learned quite the opposite: that committing your attention to a box with pretty lights and colors is superior to absorbing the magic of nature; that her pretty light box is more important than people; that time spent with someone she loves is cheap.

Certainly, I am not suggesting that parents–or all adults, for that matter–should or can be unwavering examples of virtue; inconsistency is inevitable. But you know what else is inevitable? Kids imitating the people they look up to.

So we–all of us–must be intentional about the lessons we are unintentionally teaching. This means committing our attention to experiences and people, not emojis and hashtags. It means modeling the importance of relationships and connections, not text messages and apps. Above all, it means teaching our children with both hands.


Meltzoff, Andrew N. “Infant Imitation after a 1-week Delay: Long-term Memory for Novel Acts and Multiple Stimuli.” Developmental Psychology 24.4 (1988): 470-76. Web.

Shimpi, Priya M., Nameera Akhtar, and Chris Moore. “Toddlers’ Imitative Learning in Interactive and Observational Contexts: The Role of Age and Familiarity of the Model.” Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 116.2 (2013): 309-23. Web.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Alice Walker says:

    I try so hard not to be that mom, but funny how when I briefly passed you at the gym on Wednesday, I was happily glued to my phone. Yes, inconsistency is a fact of life. Thanks for reminding me to pay attention to the world, not the pretty buttons and lights.


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