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What Kids Teach Each Other

"My kids are teaching each other," I told my pediatrician, who was examining my twin boys at their 1-year checkup.

"Most kids arrive at milestones around the same age," he said. "It's not so much that they're teaching each other as that they're learning the same skills at the same time."

"Is howling a milestone?" I asked. "Dylan taught Gabe to throw his head back and howl like a wolf last night. And the other day Gabe taught Dylan how to blow on my tummy and giggle hysterically."

"Okay," he said with a smile. "Maybe they are teaching each other things." Experts tell us that babies come out of the womb ready to learn. Sure, moms and dads have a lot of wisdom to impart, but some of the most effective teachers are children. You may have already noticed that even babies love watching other kids. It makes sense, then, that a major way children learn is by studying what siblings and peers do, gleaning such skills as how to tie their shoes, scale the living room couch, and much more.

ABC's and Beyond

One afternoon, Mary Miller of Boise, Idaho, and her then 2-year-old twins were in the car when the boys started to sing the alphabet song. Miller was a little surprised --she hadn't worked on letters with them at all yet. "Where did you learn that?" she asked. "Logan," the boys answered.

Of course: their big brother.

Younger siblings usually work very hard to keep up with their older sisters and brothers, often learning things earlier than their siblings did. "Jacob, who's three, has learned what dates on a calendar mean and how to count from his five-year-old brother, Nate," says Katie Alarcon of Alexandria, Virginia.

It's not just the younger kids who benefit from such learning. The older children get an IQ boost from teaching, says Lise Eliot, Ph.D., author of What's Going On in There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life. They can become more skilled, and gain confidence, simply by showing their younger siblings new words or how to jump rope. Research supports what teachers have known for years: The best way to really learn something is to teach it to someone else. "Children learn best by doing," says Roberta Golinkoff, Ph.D., coauthor of Einstein Never Used Flash Cards: How Our Children Really Learn and Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less. "Teaching is active doing."

Kids needn't be different ages to learn from each other, though. Even babies can demonstrate how to do anything from sticking out their tongue to reaching for a toy. My friend Anne Chericone, who lives in Boise, recently took her 18-month-old daughter to visit a friend and her son. "When we got home, I couldn't figure out why Carmen kept grabbing my nose and grinning," she says. "But later, my friend said that while Carmen and River were together, he was constantly pushing her nose and making honking noises." River had taught her not only a new game but also that she could initiate a good joke herself.

But what about the things kids do that we'd rather our own don't learn? Sometimes parents worry that their toddler will pick up poor language skills from friends who are also still learning to speak properly. That's actually nothing to be concerned about: "Even kids who spend a great deal of time with other young kids still end up mimicking the adult style of language," Eliot says.

I'm convinced that kids can learn what not to do from each other too. At 8 months, Gabe was one of those babies who couldn't wait for balance or good judgment to take on the task of walking. At the same time, Dylan was just learning to stand unassisted. Then one day Gabe made a trek across the living room floor, teetered as he reached the center, and landed face first on the coffee-table corner. He started to cry, and Dylan stared as Gabe's eye swelled into a purple egg. He stared as I ran for the ice pack and the phone, and he stared as Gabe let us all know he hated the ice on his eye even more than the injury itself. Gabe recovered without stitches or a trip to the emergency room. But for weeks, every time we would stand Dylan up on his feet, he would buckle his knees and sit down. He seemed to have learned from his brother that walking was a little more dangerous than he'd thought.

My sister, Amy Svoboda, who lives in Arlington Heights, Illinois, says that my 3-year-old nephew, Sam, had fewer temper tantrums after he watched another boy completely lose it on the train. Sam was upset enough to want to talk about what he saw, and Amy was able to gently bring up that Sam sometimes acted similarly. "He definitely got it," she says.

While kids learn plenty from their friends, they still have their own minds. Yours will be able to sort out for himself what's worth imitating and what isn't.

Laura Stavoe Harm also writes for BabyTalk and Ladies' Home Journal. She lives with her family in Idaho.

Playing Well With Others

At around age 2, kids start to learn that people sometimes think and feel differently than they do. Moms aren't always helpful at teaching kids about these differences because they tend to emphasize the things they have in common with their children. Other kids --particularly older ones --are much more likely to point out differences of opinion or taste. When a big sister says, "I don't want that book. It's for babies," a younger one realizes that not everyone likes what she does --and that there's more to the world than board books. Even when one kid picks chocolate and the other vanilla, they're learning that there's not just one way of doing things.

Such encounters also teach social skills. "What children can show other children that adults can't is how to read the signals of their peers," says Stanley Greenspan, M.D., author of Building Healthy Minds. Toddlers usually communicate with each other by using gestures and emotional signals rather than words. "When young kids are given the opportunity to relate to others in this way, they're able to develop the skills they'll need to read those signals when they're on the playground later," he says.

Sue Auman of Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, has seen her 4-year-old daughter learn such social cues. "Ruby has a tendency to be bossy, and I've found it helpful to bring her to playgroups, where she has a chance to see the effects of her behavior. Over time she's learned that when she's bossy, the other kids won't play with her. She's figured out that if she doesn't adjust her behavior, she'll end up playing alone," Auman says. We all want our kids to get along with others, but often the best way to help is to step back and let the other kids show them how.

In the process, kids also learn about compassion and caring by being around each other. Even at 3 or 4, children will take on a caregiving role and will spontaneously use motherese when they're introduced to a baby. Stephanie Hight of Longmont, Colorado, sees how her 6-week-old, Abbey, has brought out 3-year-old Thomas's softer side. "If Abbey is fussy, Thomas comes near and talks to her, and she'll just stop and gaze up at him."

This type of nurturing doesn't end with babies. At my sons' preschool, the kids ranged in age from 3 to 6. When they first started there, an older boy, Blaine, took 3-year-old Gabe under his wing. He went out of his way to include Gabe during recess and showed unbelievable patience when my son was determined to make a basket even though he was barely as big as the ball. Now 8, Gabe still remembers that relationship. Whenever a younger child wants Gabe's attention, I can say, "Remember Blaine." Gabe's become a compassionate role model for younger kids, not because his mom says he should but because he does remember, and he wants to be like Blaine for someone else.

Imagination At Work

We tend to prioritize the kind of learning that can be measured on tests: letter recognition, times tables, hand-eye coordination. But some of the most essential skills aren't so easily quantified. We've all seen the living room chairs become a rocket ship, the Tupperware turn into a drum set, or a tree transform into spy headquarters. Most often these imaginary worlds emerge when kids are playing together in ways grown-ups have forgotten.

"Parents may sometimes feel kids aren't learning if they have unstructured time, but some of the most important learning takes place when a couple of kids have an opportunity to just goof off together," says Golinkoff. Starting even before they turn 2, children begin to create imaginary preverbal dramas during playtime, and kids who are naturally more curious can help those who are less so learn to open up to a new world. Within these dramas they learn how to explore, think outside the box, share ideas, and practice taking risks in a safe environment.

Parents might not always notice the learning that goes on among children, especially when they're playing around and seem to be simply having fun. Looking back on my own childhood, I remember some of the things my friends taught me: to play kickball, overcome my fear of diving, jump rope, and make up after a fight. Together my sisters and I learned to build secret forts and explore dry creek beds. And at the same time, we learned about friendship and love, how caring about someone else can make the whole world look a lot brighter. As a mom, I see that's a lesson my children teach me every day too.