how toddlers think

Photo by dsteiner23

It's always nice when one of those smarty pants scientists finds an explanation to some frustrating or bizarre toddler behavior. Stuff like why they refuse to nap even though they are tired or think it's okay to eat a month-old waffle from under their car seat, or, in this particular case, why they just don't listen to anything we say (over and over and over again infinity).

Like this morning:

"Aidan, put on your coat. It's cold out."

"Carolyn, please stop playing with your baby and go potty."

"Aidan, the coat. Now. We're late."

"Carolyn, did you go potty yet? Put the doll down and ..."

Well, now I'm relieved (detect the note of sarcasm here?). Researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder say my children are not intentionally trying to push me over the edge. What they are really doing when I think they are blatantly ignoring me is taking all my directions, helpful suggestions, and words of wisdom and filing them away in their little monkey brains until later. A lot later. Like age 13. Okay, maybe not that much later, but you get the point.

Toddler brains don't work the way adult brains do (they're only discovering this now?!). They can't take data from the present and use it proactively for the future. So, tiny kids neither plan for the future nor live completely in the present. Instead, they call up the past as they need it.

The example that the researcher gave was exactly what happened this morning with the winter coat and my 5 year old (not a toddler in age, but still in spirit, trust me).

The researcher says: "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. You might expect the child to plan for the future, think 'okay 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."

In other words, moms, repeating your command a zillion times will do exactly squat. They are not going to listen to you, and if they do, it's because they don't want to lose the dessert you threatened to take away or some other terrifying proposition.

A better way to reason with a toddler with selective hearing?

"Somehow try to trigger this reactive function," the researcher explains. "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."

Your thoughts on this finding? Will this approach work with your toddler? How do you deal with a tot that just doesn't listen?