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Toddlers Really Do Hear What We Say

Now we know why toddlers may just be the most frustrating human beings on Earth -- they aren't simply little adults.

That's the word out of researchers from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Instead, kids hear what we say but simply store it away for later, says psychology professor Yuko Munakata.

For instance, says the research team, let's say you tell your child to put on a coat because it's cold outside. Your child doesn't listen because your child doesn't understand planning ahead. But once that same child goes outside and starts shivering, he pulls back that stored memory of needing his coat to stay warm.

"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, let's see if this works:

Current scenario:

Mom: You're tired. Time for a nap.
Toddler: I'm NOT tired. I'm playing.
Mom: I'll count to three. And then it's time for a nap.
Toddler: No (throws fit)
Mom: Picks up toddler and puts him to bed.
Toddler: Cries, then falls right asleep.

Ideal scenario:

Mom: I can see your eyes closing. When you're ready to sleep, go up to bed to take a nap.
Toddler: Okay.

Hmmm. I'm pretty sure I tried that a few times and the kids fell asleep on the rug next to their toys.

Have you tried more reactive approaches to your toddlers? Did they work? What did you find most effective for minimizing toddler tantrums?

By Stacey Garfinkle |  March 25, 2009; 10:56 AM ET
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"Have you tried more reactive approaches to your toddlers?"

No. This crap wasn't the latest fad when my kids were little. Some people are sooooo stupid.

"What did you find most effective for minimizing toddler tantrums?"

The "look".

Posted by: jezebel3 | March 25, 2009 11:51 AM | Report abuse

Stacey I agree with you than I try to more reactive approach I end up with, per your example, a toddler sleeping on the floor. But is that really a problem? People are always saying that kids must sleep in their beds, but they can't back it up with any evidence of harm to letting sleeping toddler pick where to sleep. It's part of the whole "whose the parent here?" mentality. Your the parent, you set the rules and the child better follow them. Yeah . . . or what?

I'd love to say I've bucked common knowledge on these things, but in truth, I have followed the convention since the kids of those that were raised in the "you sleep where and when I tell you sleep" camp seemed to turn out ok. So why rock the boat?

But I'd wager those parents (any out there?) that have engaged in a more laissez-faire, free range approach to parenting also have good kids.

Posted by: captiolhillmom | March 25, 2009 12:49 PM | Report abuse

Reactive as in . . . if you don't react to me now and go to bed you don't get any Barbie time? Since they lack the planning in advance function, I sort of think we have to plan in advance FOR them . . . like take the coat so that you can give it to them when they get cold . . . and hopefully after enough times of getting cold and asking for their coat it eventually sinks in! Kind of like being parents.

Posted by: ElaineatLipstickdaily | March 25, 2009 1:03 PM | Report abuse

It depends on the weather as to whether I order them (young elemenatary aged) to put a jacket on. Son has an internal heater so he can tolerate cold more than daughter. Daughter will come inside and get a jacket. Obviously, in winter, the parka is nonnegotiable.

As for sleeping, my son was the good sleeper, but my daughter didn't like to go to bed. When she was 2 1/2, I did the bedtime routine, read to her, and turned the lights off, but she was free to use a flashlight to look at books until she was sleepy. As long as she was quiet and in bed, this was fine. On the occasional morning that she was hard to wake and/or cranky because she was up too late looking at books, I'd tell her only 2 books tonight, because you're tired. I can't recall this being a problem for consecutive nights. The books gave her a degree of control. These days, she's wiped out from the school day, so she goes right to sleep, but other nights, she tells me she's going to look at some books.

Posted by: NoVA-too | March 25, 2009 2:02 PM | Report abuse

I think we think too much about how to talk to toddlers. How about "It's naptime, Sweetie!" and scooping him up in your arms and putting him in his bed? No big deal, really...

Posted by: coreyfam | March 25, 2009 2:09 PM | Report abuse

Yes, toddlers can't plan ahead. We needed a study to tell us this?

I think there's gotta be a happy medium here between making everything into a "do what I say NOW" power struggle and "ok, do what you want when you feel like it, sweetie" abdication of parenting. I find natural consequences (with parental backup to prevent serious problems) to be pretty effective. Don't want to wear a coat even though I've told you it's cold? Ok, no skin of my nose. But no whining when you need to come inside early because you're too cold.

Bedtime is classic. Of course no toddler ever wants to stop playing -- by definition, they are too (a) young and (b) tired to make rational decisions. So why argue about it? Why threaten, punish, cajole, etc., when your "opponent" has the attention span and reasoning skills of a gnat? And on the flip side, why let those same infinitesimal reasoning skills decide when it's bedtime? I'm the mom -- it's my job to see when they're tired before they're old enough to recognize it themselves, and to make decisions in their best interests until they are able to.

For us, I give a few minutes' warning, because I know that helps my kids handle transitions more easily. Then I just proclaim bedtime, and we go up. On the one time out of 50 that the boy pitches a fit, I just say, "boy, you really must be tired," scoop him up, and walk him through the bedtime routine -- really, I find it much easier to NOT get PO'd when he's that worked up, because it's so clearly the exhaustion talking.

Posted by: laura33 | March 25, 2009 3:12 PM | Report abuse

Laura, as always, you are the voice of reason, practicality, and common sense.

I agree that arguing with a toddler is just futile. Better to make the decision and implement it lovingly. As long as you are consistent about it, the kids will go along with what you decide. For me, managing toddler's is easy. It is harder when they get older and can reason, argue, negotiate, wheedle, beg, complain, and pout, and they are too big to scoop up in your arms and carry upstairs. Sigh.

Posted by: emily8 | March 25, 2009 5:09 PM | Report abuse

There is no manual on dealing with toddlers. No set way. Each one is an individual. Just go with the flow, enjoy them and relax. Toddlers have built in rebellion as do teenagers!

Give them lots of love and kisses. Tickles too!. When you're exhausted with their rebellious ways, put them in a corner for a couple of minutes. At bed time, put them in bed, read book, turn lights out, say I love you.


Posted by: TTCP | March 25, 2009 5:42 PM | Report abuse

Laura, you are right on.
My almost 4 YO still needs a nap most days, but ALWAYS says he's not tired. I don't force him into his room, usually. what USED to work was telling him he could play in his room or rest on the couch. First, he had control, and second, he thought: i'm playing in my room, not resting - but he would invariably fall asleep.
Now what happens tho is that he doesn't rest, or he gives me a fight, or whatever, and then we have to get his brother off the bus - and he has a tough afternoon.
I don't know the answer, we muddle through. But really - what's the problem of them falling asleep not in their rooms? This is why the couch worked so well, I think he thinks he's being punished by 'being in his room' and no one else is here anyway - so he's fine and it's quiet, blahblah.
But if we get a tantrum, the most effective thing - for him - is to take things out of his room. Oh, he hates that (usually, I'm trying to keep him in his room - and if he comes out, something gets taken from him, then he follows me, but he's gotten SO much better over time) - but everyone has to find what is important to their own toddler, and take it away from them.

Posted by: atlmom1234 | March 25, 2009 7:14 PM | Report abuse

Luckily, the closest child we have to a toddler is pretty easy going and willing to do whatever you say. You say "get ready for bed" and 99 times out of 100 she gets herself ready for bed. You have to love it.

Other child? ARGH! As long as he already isn't riding my last nerve, I simply ignore him. He usually comes around when he sees that SD is getting a book read to her and he is not. If he continues then I tell him he can do whatever he wants but consequences will be occurring. Rarely do I have to get to the consequence part because SS knows that my consequences always happen and I make sure he won't like them. Say not going to the park the next day.

Although this works on any number of things, I really want to work on lessening the number of temper tantrums that occur on an extremely regular basis. Maybe they are mostly manageable but I just don't want them even starting. We had a serious conversation early in the morning last weekend and the two of us came up with a plan. As a result of that have managed to nip several in the bud since then.

Posted by: Billie_R | March 26, 2009 9:29 AM | Report abuse

I tend to just be firm with my kids when it comes to issues like these. If they do throw a fit about it, I like to let them learn their lesson the hard way. Still, I don't like it when they fall asleep with their toys, or go out without a coat. I'd rather just send them to bed with a stern look than try and run a debate.

Posted by: KatLuvsShoes | March 27, 2009 3:51 PM | Report abuse

I love reading these study results.

I am a big fan of taking the path of least resistance with my toddler (21 months) and basically trying to let her do what she wants unless its going to hurt her or is exceedingly inconvenient to me.

Once in a while I will negotiate to get her to do what I want her to, just for the sake of me being the mom, so she is reminded of who's in charge, for what that's worth...but I don't really like to operate this way in general.

She's an individual with likes and dislikes...desires of her own. Why not try to work *with* these little ones, taking into consideration the ways their brains are working, and enjoy smoother, happier times with your toddler? Mine rarely has tantrums resulting from me imposing my will on her. Most of them are minor fits from things she is trying to do not working out (fitting square peg into round hole; dog won't gie up his ball; can't get DVD player to work on her own; etc.)

Posted by: gbirgells | March 28, 2009 9:37 PM | Report abuse

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