Toddlers Sometimes Know Better
February 13, 2013

When Toddlers Know Best, They Will Often Ignore Adults In An Effort To Be Helpful

Lee Rannals for - Your Universe Online

With age, comes wisdom, and even the wisest people in the world know there is always more to learn, even from a three-year-old.

Researchers wrote in the journal Developmental Psychology that three-year-olds will override instructions from an adult if they "know better."

Fifty eight children took part in the study at a Yale University laboratory. During their study, scientists found that these toddlers were willing to ignore an adult's specific request for an item they deemed unhelpful, and went out of their way to bring something more useful to the adult.

"In our experiments, most 3-year-olds were able to recognize that adults weren't making the best decisions and decided to be helpful in another way," said co-author Kristina R. Olson, PhD, of Yale University. "Furthermore, we found that very young children are motivated to intervene when others are going about things in the wrong way, even when they are not prompted to do so."

Most of the experiments involved four pairs of matched functional and dysfunctional objects, including a real phone, a toy phone, a functional glass, a cracked glass, a hammer, a rubber toy hammer, a working marker, and a dried-up marker.

In one experiment, an adult asked a child to help out with a simple task, like writing a note or making a phone call. However, the experiment was set up to fail, with adults using a dried-up marker or a toy phone. The researchers found that the majority of children ignored the request for the busted item, but instead brought the adult something functional to use, such as a working marker or a real phone.

Also, it's not that children are all just brats, because nearly all the children who were asked to bring over a helpful object obeyed the wishes of the adult. When an object, useful or not, was asked to be thrown in the trash, the toddlers obeyed.

According to the researchers, the child did not discriminate between functional and non-functioning articles, because as long as the three-year-old knew it would help the adult complete the task, they brought it. If an adult asked for the toy phone so they could hold down some papers, the majority of the children brought over the toy phone.

"It appears very young children can recognize that helping someone can sometimes mean paying attention to their ultimate goal rather than their specific request," said Olson. "This work illustrates that even within the first few years of life, children have a remarkably sophisticated understanding of helping."