Are you listening to me? Didn't I just tell you to get your coat? Helloooo! It's cold out there...
So goes many a conversation between parent and toddler. It seems everything you tell them either falls on deaf ears or goes in one ear and out the other. But that's not how it works.
Toddlers listen, they just store the information for later use, a new study finds.
"I went into this study expecting a completely different set of findings," said psychology professor Yuko Munakata at the University of Colorado at Boulder. "There is a lot of work in the field of cognitive development that focuses on how kids are basically little versions of adults trying to do the same things adults do, but they're just not as good at it yet. What we show here is they are doing something completely different."
Munakata and colleagues used a computer game and a setup that measures the diameter of the pupil of the eye to determine the mental effort of the child to study the cognitive abilities of 3-and-a-half-year-olds and 8-year-olds.
The game involved teaching children simple rules about two cartoon characters — Blue from Blue's Clues and SpongeBob SquarePants — and their preferences for different objects. The children were told that Blue likes watermelon, so they were to press the happy face on the computer screen only when they saw Blue followed by a watermelon. When SpongeBob appeared, they were to press the sad face on the screen.
"The older kids found this sequence easy, because they can anticipate the answer before the object appears," said doctoral student Christopher Chatham, who participated in the study. "But preschoolers fail to anticipate in this way. Instead, they slow down and exert mental effort after being presented with the watermelon, as if they're thinking back to the character they had seen only after the fact."
The pupil measurements showed that 3-year-olds neither plan for the future nor live completely in the present. Instead, they call up the past as they need it.
"For example, let's say it's cold outside and you tell your 3-year-old to go get his jacket out of his bedroom and get ready to go outside," Chatham explained. "You might expect the child to plan for the future, think 'OK it's cold outside so the jacket will keep me warm.' But what we suggest is that this isn't what goes on in a 3-year-old's brain. Rather, they run outside, discover that it is cold, and then retrieve the memory of where their jacket is, and then they go get it."
The findings are detailed this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Munakata figures the results might help with real situations.
"If you just repeat something again and again that requires your young child to prepare for something in advance, that is not likely to be effective," Munakata said. "What would be more effective would be to somehow try to trigger this reactive function. So don't do something that requires them to plan ahead in their mind, but rather try to highlight the conflict that they are going to face. Perhaps you could say something like 'I know you don't want to take your coat now, but when you're standing in the yard shivering later, remember that you can get your coat from your bedroom."
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