“Mom! Tell him to stop copying me!”
It’s a phrase mothers everywhere hear at least once on their parenting journey. Children are natural copycats. As early as babyhood they mimic the sounds around them, especially the speech rhythms of their mothers, in order to communicate and comprehend. It is intuitive to parents that children acquire language fluency first by repeating sounds, then small words, then phrases, and finally, full sentences.
Parents understand that the more they talk to their babies the greater the chance that their children will develop robust vocabularies. What some educators don’t realize, however, is that this copycat impulse in babies and young children is valuable for learning a variety of skills, extending far beyond the rudimentary acquisition of a mother tongue. Copying is the key both to learning to play an instrument and to writing well.
Though not homeschooled, I was a classically trained cellist who studied the Suzuki method, one built on the idea that copying the experts is the key to mastery. My instructor gave me recordings of perfectly performed musical pieces and instructed me to listen to them again and again in order to absorb their structure, style, phrasing, and intonation. Then I tried to make my sound match theirs.
Of course, at the time I didn’t understand the significance of what I was doing because I was only three when I began taking lessons! But Suzuki’s philosophy was that any child can learn to play an instrument, and play it well, by first listening to, and eventually copying, perfectly played pieces of music. By hearing the music over and over I was able to capture the flavor of it, eventually understanding what I needed to adjust in my own playing in order to match it. This copying allowed me to simply follow in someone else’s footsteps, again and again, until I no longer had to rely on them. It’s a method that has worked for thousands of children worldwide.
Learning to write, like learning to play a musical instrument, requires the student to develop an “ear” for good writing and then to be able to sort the good from the bad. This is particularly true in the beginning stages. In recent years mainstream educators have suggested that children learn to write better if they are allowed to write about topics in which they are interested without worrying too much about elements of style and structure. Today many children are taught to write what they know without practicing the crucial first step of imitating excellent writing. These children struggle to write well because they haven’t internalized the rules of good writing. They may be creative but they aren’t proficient.
It has not always been this way.
For hundreds of years, children learned to write not by indulging in navel-gazing or flights of fancy but by copying passages from Scripture, the classics, even poems. Benjamin Franklin taught himself to write well by copying paragraphs of articles from discarded newspapers. Two hundred years ago children were not expected to dig deep inside their souls to come up with interesting things to say without first parroting what the literary greats had already said and how they had said it. Instead they were taught to imitate writing that had already withstood the test of time until they had largely absorbed the essence of good composition. This method was stunningly successful because it capitalized on the way children learn best, by following in someone else’s footsteps.
In an age where everyone wants to stand out from the crowd, parents should not despise the copycat impulse in their children. Instead, educators (traditional and homeschoolers alike) would do well to encourage their students to copy examples of excellence before expecting them to produce excellence of their own. Originality of thought, turns of phrase, or musical interpretation must not be pressed on our children as an ideal, particularly when they are just beginning to learn to write or play. Too often we praise what we perceive to be creativity in our children while assuming that copying someone else’s work in order to gain skill is an intellectual or artistic evil.
Instead, we must embrace the copycat in our children, encouraging them to walk before they run by treading the worn paths of those masters who came before them.