Denise Cummins Ph.D.

Good Thinking

A Psychologist Views Why Moms Get Nothing Done

A video of a baby imitating mom goes viral. Here's what it means.

Posted Feb 21, 2015

Screen Shot of Viral Video taken by Denise Cummins

In this hilarious video gone viral (nearly 60 million views), Esther Anderson, mother of  toddler Ella, shows why moms get nothing done. Ella follows Anderson around, undoing everything mom is trying to accomplish. Anderson pulls clothes out of a hamper and places them in a drawer. Ella pulls clothes out of another drawer. Anderson sweeps a floor. Ella brushes the sweepings around with her hand. Anderson cleans a window. Ella breathes heavily on the window, leaving a cloud of condensation on the pane. Mom loads the dishwasher. Ella tries to close the door before Anderson is done.

Thousands of people have posted comments about the video, and they seem to fall neatly into three categories.

Category 1: Yep, been there, experienced that. I totally sympathize. LOL!

Most of us who have been around young children have experienced this, so it is not surprising that this seems to be the largest category. It is proof that children are nature's way of telling you to develop a sense of humor.

Category 2: C.S. Lewis once said that children are not a distraction from more important work, they are the most important work.

This is spot on. This toddler isn’t simply frustrating mom. Most of the time, she's doing a child's most important job: Imitating everything adults do.  

Relative to most other animals, we are born "immature" and helpless . We can't even sit up on our own much less trot after mom the way a dog or horse can. Our brains don't even completely mature until we reach our twenties. But this immaturity affords us one very important benefit: Unlike many other species, we don't need to rely on a collection of reflexes and instincts to survive. Instead, we are born to learn. Our slow rate of maturation allows us to learn and adapt to the specific physical and social environment into which we are born. Humans thrive in environments as diverse as the Arctic and the Equator, each with its own specific culture of language, foods, beliefs, and customs that must be learned during childhood.

Nature has used an unlikely trick for achieving this tradeoff of immaturity and fast learning: The capacity to imitate. Imitation is a powerful form of learning that comes on-line early in development and shapes who we become. In the words of developmental psychologist Andrew Melzoff:

… we have evolved a special and very powerful form of learning. That special form of learning is "imitation," the ability to learn behavior from observing the actions of others. Imitation is so commonplace among adults and children that it is often overlooked in infancy, but infants make good use of imitation. Understanding imitation in infancy changes the way we look at infants. In so doing, it changes the way we look at ourselves, because we begin to see ourselves reflected in the behavior of our youngest children.

Watch the video again from this new perspective. Ella divides her time between trying to do what mom does and simply exploring and manipulating stuff she finds in her very interesting environment. One way to capitalize on this is to give children tasks that are simple versions of whatever you're doing. Folding clothes? Give toddler a small pile of clothes to fold and put in a box. Washing windows? Give toddler a wet cloth to smear on a window. 

This trick works amazingly well—far better than giving them an age appropriate toy to play with. From a child's point of view, playing is all well and good, but following and imitating you is way more interesting.

Category 3: That child needs to be spanked to stop her from interfering so she'll learn to respect the work that mom is trying to accomplish.

For those of you who fall into this category, I suggest you try hard to develop a sense of humor. Then read my previous blog post on why hitting your child is a bad idea for both of you.

Copyright Dr. Denise Cummins February 21, 2015

Dr. Cummins is a research psychologist, a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science, and the author of Good Thinking: Seven Powerful Ideas That Influence the Way We Think.

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