Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it may also be a powerful conscience builder for toddlers, according to a new study.

Researchers found that differences in how toddlers imitate their mothers can be related to how developed their conscience is as preschoolers.

The study showed that toddlers who enthusiastically imitate their mothers tend to develop a sense of right and wrong sooner than those who don’t.

“Our results demonstrate a clear link between toddler-age readiness to imitate and preschool-age conscience,” write researcher David Forman of Concordia University, and colleagues. “This link holds across two different aspects of conscience -- internalized conduct and guilt.”

Toddlers: Do as I Do, Then Do as I Say

In the study, researchers measured children’s responses to imitation activities at ages one and two years and then measured their preschool conscience at age 2 1/2 and 3 1/2 years old.

In the first part, the mothers encouraged their toddlers to imitate them while they performed simple actions, such as cleaning a table, playing tea party, or feeding a stuffed animal, and the researchers measured the children’s readiness to imitate.

In the second part, researchers measured the preschoolers’ conscience, guilt, and sense of right and wrong in several activities. For example, researchers evaluated the toddlers’ reactions as they were enticed with prizes for games that could only be won by cheating or as they broke a valuable object.

The results appear in the October issue of Psychological Science.

The study showed that toddlers who eagerly imitated their mothers were more likely to follow the rules, and more likely to show guilt when they broke something, 2 1/2 years later than the other children.

Researchers suggest that eager imitation may be a sign that both mothers and their children are highly responsive to each other, which fosters conscience development.

By  Jennifer Warner, reviewed by  Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Forman, D. Psychological Science, October 2004; vol 15: pp 699-704. News release, American Psychological Society.