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How children mimic adult behaviour

Part 1 of Mark Davies series

Mark Davies is the founder of 7Futures and has been consulting in workplace resilience, wellbeing, and performance since 2000. Formerly a CEO of J Rothschild International Assurance with responsibility for their overseas operations, Mark has over twenty years of international financial services experience and a deep understanding of the challenges facing busy people with stressful lives trying to manage their careers, health, fitness and family responsibilities.

How children mimic adult behaviour

Now a resilience coach, FA coach and a mindfulness teacher, Mark is also the only UK consultant to have completed the USA based Mind Fitness programme designed for the US Marines and is currently delivering a mental fitness programme for the British Royal Naval College. With that experience and knowledge, we connected with Mark to understand more about how children mimic the adult behavior and what we can be doing to actively encourage modern-day families to move more.

“I recall back when I was working in the Middle East for a City firm, it was common for me, in the early years, to get irate with my business associates over the phone in the office at home. It wasn’t until one day when my young daughter Hannah, at 9 months and barely walking yet, picked up the phone herself and mirrored my aggravated tones, that I realized what sort of effect our behaviors have on our children“.

It has been well observed for many years, that kids mimic adults and each other. I used to coach for Leicester City’s Academy and it was clear how children learned football skills from copying those of others: when one player tried a new trick and it worked, others would soon start to try and perform the same trick. Just look now at every young child operating their parents’ iPhone.
More recently though – say in the last 20 years – the world of neuroscience has become excited about “mirror neurons”. That is brain cells that may enable us to learn by copying the actions of others. Or put another way, there exists a neurological system that probably supports mimicking behavior.”

There are ways we can use this information for a child’s and a family’s best advantage.

“In the world of wellbeing where I operate, I am always saying to adult audiences, that whilst we already know that adults teach their kids a lot, it is important to remind ourselves to focus on our children. Generally speaking, we can say that healthy children need four things to stay well:

1. to enjoy good exercise [or movement]
2. to enjoy good food
3. adequate sleep
4. and most importantly, a loving, nurturing home full of laughter

“If they’re seeing their parents return home from work, stressed, tense, not laughing, not having fun, children themselves may adopt similar habits and fail to learn how to properly relax and recover. If parents are feeding on crisps and chocolate between meals, there’s a chance their kids are going to copy that. And if parents are not moving, there’s every chance their kids aren’t going to be moving either.

We all want our children to get good grades etc. and perform well academically, but, in the long run, all of that can be undermined by children not learning how to relax and enjoy themselves, have fun and move too.

This does not come down to simply a matter of creating the feel-good, endorphin effect brought on by exercise. Since endorphins are an opioid, we can get seduced into over-exercising. If you’re enjoying exercise and having fun too, you have a different type of hormonal response – and probably one that in a way, is more rewarding.”

Family fitness: Is there something in the bond between a parent and child when they exercise together?

“There are lots of ways that families can socially bond – why not make exercise one of them? You’re getting a double benefit: all of the physical benefits, but in a very socially engaging way. e.g. sole marathon running is not the same thing as running with a running club. It’s a cliché example for sure, but Dad going to the gym, Mum going to yoga and the kids playing computer games is not as positive for the family as encouraging them all to exercise and move together.

The physical benefits are obvious – everybody understands that exercise is good for us. What’s less understood is that social engagement allows us to better process stress as we develop and perform effectively as a grown person, inside and outside of our family.

Some families already nurture their children in this way, some might need a bit more help – and exercise is a great way to introduce it.

“As you grow, you use personal contact to manage stress but you may be unaware that you are doing this. So our ability to stay socially connected, with all the physical and cognitive benefits that accompany the more relaxed state we enjoy is critical to building and maintaining resilience.

In busy lives, with parents shooting off to work, it can become a bit harder for families to build on their social engagement: that natural nurturing environment. So an ability to exercise together will help to build on the type of nurturing environment kids grow from in their earliest years, i.e. it is demanding to try to get the perfect work/life balance when a family is young. Creating ways in which you can marry together exercise, movement, and fun in a family group is an excellent way to tick a whole number of important boxes.”

Can the term “Play” still be applied to adults?

“When kids play they’re mildly sympathetic [fight and flight], typically only as high as first gear and not right up to fifth or sixth gear. First gear is a nice place for the nervous system to be; the child is mildly excited and enjoying themselves. When you’re in fifth gear for a long time, it can take three or four hours to come back down to a relaxed state. Think about a business person who goes on vacation and doesn’t feel relaxed until the second week of their trip. That’s because both in their mind and at the autonomic nervous system level, they have been in fifth gear for too long.

For adults hitting the gym, it is a useful tactic to engage with them in some players to bring them down from fifth gear after a stressful day at work before they kick into their gym session. Sometimes, it’s arguably to do that for a full hour is more beneficial.

If we’re using the word “play”, you could refer to the autonomic nervous system being in balance and regulating the body’s organs and systems in a manner that’s conducive to wellbeing. Not everyone is aware they have a nervous system that helps us perform but also helps us recover. We should ignore any influence from others or from your own mind that suggests it is weak to rest. You are simply using mental strength to keep your foot on the accelerator. Mental strength is good, but your mind and body need to rest if you are to stay strong. Elite sports people now get this, the rest of us are still catching on to the importance of recovery. Being in a state of play is a great way to recover from stress.”