I recently wrote about the power that adults’ words can have on young children. Today, I’m writing about the power of adults’ actions. Parents know, of course, that their children keep a close eye on them. But a new study provides a particularly good example of a watch-and-learn moment: Toddlers who saw an adult struggle before succeeding were more likely to persevere themselves.
Toddlers are “very capable learners,” says study coauthor Julia Leonard, a cognitive developmental psychologist at MIT. Scientists have found that these youngsters pick up on abstract concepts and new words after just a few exposures. But it wasn’t clear whether watching adults’ actions would actually change the way toddlers tackle a problem.
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To see whether toddlers could soak up an adult’s persistence, Leonard and her colleagues tested 262 13- to 18-month-olds (the average age was 15 months). Some of the children watched an experimenter try to retrieve a toy stuck inside a container. In some cases, the experimenter quickly got the toy out three times within 30 seconds — easy. Other times, the experimenter struggled for the entire 30 seconds before finally getting the toy out. The experimenter then repeated the process for a different problem, removing a carabiner toy from a keychain. Some kids didn’t see any experimenter demonstration.
Just after watching an adult struggle (or not), the toddlers were given a light-up cube. It had a big, useless button on one side. Another button — small and hidden — actually controlled the lights. The kids knew the toy could light up, but didn’t know how to turn the lights on.
Though the big button did nothing, that didn’t stop the children from poking it. But here’s the interesting part: Compared with toddlers who had just watched an adult succeed effortlessly, or not watched an adult do anything at all, the toddlers who had seen the adult struggle pushed the button more. These kids persisted, even though they never found success.
The sight of an adult persevering nudged the children toward trying harder themselves, the researchers conclude in the Sept. 22 Science. Leonard cautions that it’s hard to pull parenting advice from a single laboratory-based study, but still, “there may be some value in letting children see you work hard to achieve your goals,” she says.
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Observing the adults wasn’t the only thing that determined the toddlers’ persistence, not by a long shot. Some kids might simply be more tenacious than others. In the experiments, some of the children who didn’t see an experimenter attempt a task, or who saw an experimenter quickly succeed, were “incredibly gritty,” Leonard says. And some of the kids who watched a persistent adult still gave up quickly themselves. That’s not to mention the fact that these toddlers were occasionally tired, hungry and cranky, all of which can affect whether they give up easily. Despite all of this variation, the copycat effect remained, so that kids were more likely to persist when they had just seen a persistent adult.
As Leonard says, this is just one study and it can’t explain the complex lives of toddlers. Still, one thing is clear, and it’s something that we would all do well to remember: “Infants are watching your behavior attentively and actively learning from what you do,” Leonard says.