Many previous accounts of imitation have pointed out that children's copying behavior is a means by which to learn from others, while virtually ignoring the social factors which influence imitation. These accounts have thus far been unable to explain flexibility in children's copying behavior (e.g., why children sometimes copy exactly and sometimes copy selectively). We propose that the complexity of children's imitation can only be fully understood by considering the social context in which it is produced. Three critical factors in determining what is copied are children's own (learning and/or social) goals in the situation, children's identification with the model and with the social group in general, and the social pressures which children experience within the imitative situation. The specific combination of these factors which is present during the imitative interaction can lead children to produce a more or less faithful reproduction of the model's act. Beyond explaining flexibility in children's copying behavior, this approach situates the developmental study of imitation within a broader social psychological framework, linking it conceptually with closely related topics such as mimicry, conformity, normativity, and the cultural transmission of group differences.