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The Power of Imitation


There is a famous story of the psychologist Jean Piaget, his daughter, Jaqueline, and the witnessing of another child throwing a tantrum. The child was in his playpen and wanted out. Jaqueline became fascinated by the boy’s hysterics - the crying, the screaming, and the angst and injustice of it all!! The next day in her own playpen Jaqueline proceeded to throw her own fit but this one was different - it was mainly a replication, a reenactment. Not only did she reproduce the stamping of feet and the noises he made, but the sequence of these events as well. In seeing the boy two weeks later, she again dove into baby theater, mimicking the boy’s earlier tantrum and laughing about it as well, understanding that she was “playing” tantrum to entertain herself. (I wonder how the young boy felt about it.)

Piaget labeled Jaqueline’s actions a “deferred imitation...a reenactment of absent realities.”

By imitating the boy’s behavior, Jaqueline was not only re-creating a certain reality she witnessed, showing that even babies as young as 6 months have extensive memory systems at play, she was also demonstrating that conceptual understandings of the world, and their cognitive representations, are forming early and often. She was expressing an understanding of the reality she witnessed, not just sensorimotor replications of events observed.

This information can be coupled with another very interesting phenomena that takes place with infants as young as 6 months and perhaps earlier: they recognize gender differences almost immediately, and we have no real idea why. There is some conjecture that they do so by understanding contours and shapes of faces which have been marginally associated with male versus female facial structures, but there is no real evidence to support this theory. What is clear is that they do it. “This kind of categorization is part of the visual input system; it takes place automatically and does not require attention.”* See Reference Below

By imitating the boy’s behavior, Jaqueline was not only re-creating a certain reality she witnessed, showing that even babies as young as 6 months have extensive memory systems at play, she was also demonstrating that conceptual understandings of the world, and their cognitive representations, are forming early and often.

While it might sound like I am making a biological argument; in fact, I am suggesting the exact opposite. Babies in home environments and children later in school are imitation and recognition machines. They pick up on the slightest and most subtle information in order to conceptualize the world around them and make sense of their place in it. Conscious, explicit, or declarative thought develops slowly and consistently through practice and ever more sophisticated levels of educational engagement. But what children learn procedurally and implicitly is baked into their systems of development and highly influenced by their social and emotional environment. The research also supports a critical idea I have written about previously: that gender and its related associations and representations are primary and fundamental to the human experience. (See: Gender is Unavoidable)

Babies in home environments and children later in school are imitation and recognition machines. They pick up on the slightest and most subtle information in order to conceptualize the world around them and make sense of their place in it.

If so, how adults respond to tantrums, how we shape our home lives, how teachers craft the educational experiences of children and young people must be accompanied by a clear awareness regarding gender issues. We have no choice. If we want our children to grow in positive ways and develop into their best selves, negative and damaging gender biases and stereotypes need to be consciously addressed. The upside is that our children are learning machines; they are designed to engage with the world and soak up what we have to offer. The warning is that they are imitating and reenacting everything that we do. This fact merely validates what we all know: adults wield enormous power and responsibility for our children’s future.


*Mandler, J.M. The Foundations of Mind: Origins of Conceptual Thought. 2009. Oxford University Press, New York. p. 49.


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Jason is flexible and attentive, yet remains committed to his high expectations of my work in tackling tough situations and tasks.  With a sense of humor and compassion for the rigor of a leadership position, he knows how to guide me with just the right amount of productive stress.  I appreciate that.

Daphne Orenshein - Elementary School Principal: Hillel Hebrew Academy