Giving Toddlers Autonomy May Help Their Brains Develop

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Photo: Daniel H. Bailey/Corbis

Parents will never stop being hungry for answers to basic questions about how to raise their kids. And a lot of these questions boil down to just how much free reign to give children to figure stuff out on their own and make mistakes. A recent study in the Journal of Child and Family Studies suggests that for toddlers, at least, there could be serious benefits to parents keeping their kids’ autonomy in mind — and promoting it whenever possible — when helping them solve problems.

The study, led by Célia Matte-Gagné of the University of Montreal, included 78 moms and their toddlers, whom researchers visited in their homes when the kids were 15 months and 3 years old. During the visits, the toddlers were given game-y tasks that were a bit tricky and their moms were instructed to assist them — the researchers videoed the interactions for later analysis.

Specifically, the researchers were curious about to what extent the moms helped their toddlers while encouraging their autonomy; as the press release puts it, the authors measured “to what extent she encouraged her child in the pursuit of the task (giving positive feedback and using a positive tone of voice), took her child’s perspective and demonstrated flexibility in her attempts to keep the child on task, followed her child’s pace, providing the child with the opportunity to make choices and play an active role, and intervened and adapted the task according to the infant’s needs while minimizing the use of controlling techniques.”

Follow-up visits revealed that the toddlers granted more autonomy showed signs of better levels of executive functioning — a type of “higher” thinking involving delayed gratification, juggling multiple concepts, and so on. The implication is that interacting with toddlers at their level and not swooping in from above to solve their problems is a bit more brain-stimulating than saying, “Here, I’ll show you which block goes where.” Useful advice to keep in mind the next time you’re frustrated by a toddler’s inability to remember which animal makes what noise.

For Smarter Toddlers, Give Them More Autonomy