WATCH ABOVE: A mother asks her son to punch another woman during a fight inside a Walmart. WARNING: Video contains graphic violence. Viewer discretion is advised.
TORONTO — Like mother, like son. That’s what some of the millions are saying who’ve watched a video of a mother and her young son fight a Walmart shopper in the U.S. (the shopper miraculously regains her mobility during the brawl, but that’s a whole other story).
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“Johnny, punch her in the [expletive] face!” instructed the mother of the boy, who according to WGN-TV is six years old.
The youngster wasted no time punching and hitting with what appears to be shampoo bottles. He even antagonized the other woman, yelling: “I don’t care about you, dummy! Ya, do something about it. What are you gonna do?” When an observer from the crowd tried to stop him, Johnny wasn’t having it.
“You can’t tell me to stop,” he declared, before marching over to the onlookers, whom he told: “Do not even tell me what to do.”
Experts we spoke to say the viral incident is a classic case of what’s known in psychology as modelling.
“That behaviour was surely learned from the mother,” speculated University of Toronto psychology professor Joan Grusec, who has studied the role parents play in how their children develop socially and emotionally.
“Children at different ages of their development are much more vulnerable to learning through social modelling,” added fellow U of T psych professor Gary Walters.
Johnny, he explained, is around the crucial age when the child’s brain hasn’t yet fully developed its executive functions. So the child largely learns through observing those around him.
“There isn’t a lot of ‘gee, I wonder if this is right?’ That clicks in a lot later.”
But modeling isn’t limited to younger children, he cautioned. There’s research that suggests aggression can be modelled from playing violent video games or even watching pornography.
When it comes to social modelling, i.e. learning from watching those around you, some people can be much more affected by what they see than others, and in entirely different ways.
“Seeing your mother beaten up by your [father], you react as either the aggressor when you have your own conflicts or you may withdraw completely and move into depression.”
Even if there’s no physical violence, seeing parents arguing a lot can be harmful to a child. Grusec cited research that claims “children are better off with parents who are separated or divorced when there’s a lot of conflict in the home.”
So is there hope for little Johnny? Both Grusec and Walters think so, but admit that a change of environment might be required.
According to WXIN, Beech Grove Police are looking into how the boy is being raised and whether the Department of Child Services needs to get involved.
In the end, given the right conditions, modelling might work in the boy’s favour. Since, as Walters mentioned, as much as bad habits can be picked up from modelling, empathy can also be learned the same way.
WATCH: Did you know “empathy” video games exist?
Harvard psychologist Richard Weissbourd, of the Making Caring Common project, has come up with ways you can help your kids to be kind. See some of his tips for how to raise caring and respectful children in the video below.