How many times can a toddler say “Look at me!!!” in an hour? Parents of 2-, 3- and 4-year-olds know the right answer is dozens. And dozens. Now, a fascinating new study suggests that your response to this oft-repeated bid for attention can set the stage for better, more cooperative learning.
Child-development researchers from Canada’s Concordia University figured it out by watching kids and parents interact. First, they asked parents to fill out a long, complicated questionnaire while their toddler was with them. Soon enough, the kids began asking for attention. Some laughed, smiled, pointed at objects, tried to share their toys and even interrupted with a polite “excuse me, mommy” – signs, the researchers say, that their parents are usually attentive, sensitive and responsive and that the kids expected more of the same. Other toddlers screamed, cried and even hurled their parent’s pen across the room – behavior that, according to the researchers, meant the kids weren’t used to the same high-quality attention from their parents.
The parents and kids then worked together learning a new skill, like how to pick up a ball. Kids who had received “high quality” attention were more likely to work with their parent than those who had not.
There’s plenty that this study couldn’t account for – like a toddler who’s missed her nap, didn’t eat much lunch or is cranky because he’s cutting a new tooth. Or a parent who’s just having a bad day or who really, really needs to get the bills paid or finish up a report for work despite hundreds of interruptions. But the basic finding makes a lot of sense: Little kids who expect good things when they interact with grown-ups are more likely to want to keep on interacting – and not just when they’re jumping off the sofa, wearing a soup pot as a hat or showing off a new crayoned creation. It seems a love of learning – and of working with other people in order to learn — has its roots in what you do when they yell LOOK AT ME!