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Little Copycats

Your 18-month-old feeds her "baby," rocks her, tucks her into bed, then shushes her other dolls and shakes her finger at them. It's a bit unnerving how much she looks like you when she shakes that finger. But she did pick it up  -- along with the caring gestures and tone of voice  -- from you.

Learning By Example

"Toddlers are natural imitators," says Catherine Dundon, M.D., associate clinical professor of pediatrics at Vanderbilt Children's Hospital, in Nashville. In fact, they learn a great deal by watching the people around them  -- you, older siblings, other kids at day care. While very young babies "use" objects in simple, tactile ways  -- chewing on them, for instance  -- a 1-year-old is ready to explore the purpose a thing serves. She's keenly interested in what you do with that lipstick, those keys, that wallet.

Mimicking allows a toddler to socialize, too. Her earliest imitative interactions might include waving bye-bye, shaking her head in response to a question, and giving hugs and kisses. When in doubt, she'll duplicate your facial expressions to determine what her response to something should be: Is that clown safe or scary? Will this new food be yummy or yucky?

Do As I Do

Because imitation can be such a valuable learning tool, it's a good idea to encourage it. For instance, play copycat games in which your child mimics your gestures as you touch your nose or clap your hands. Once she's comfortably mobile, she can also play follow-the-leader.

Since toddlers love to be part of the action, let yours in on whatever you're doing. If you're cooking, give her a wooden spoon and plastic bowl.

Somewhere around the middle of your child's second year, you'll be inundated with offers to help you dust, wash potatoes, paint. Let her, encouraging rather than correcting her as she works. And be tolerant of messes. "She's trying to please you, and her efforts are important to her development," says Dr. Dundon.

When time is of the essence or you're working on a task that's unsafe for her to tackle, you'll need to distract her gently. Convince her that she's still chipping in by letting her "work" nearby. When you're washing dishes, for instance, hand her a towel and some unbreakable plates to dry.

And if she misses a spot? If you don't want her to wag that finger, better keep yours to yourself.

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