Your Toddler Isn’t Ignoring You: He’s Just Saving Your Advice for Later

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Every parent of a child two or older knows the frustration inherent in trying to give advice to a toddler—they just don’t seem to be paying attention. A new scientific study provides good news, sort of: It’s not that your kid is ignoring you; rather, he’s saving the advice until he thinks it’s the right time to use it.

The new study, from the University of Colorado at Boulder, shows that, unlike older kids and adults, little kids (the study focused on three-and-a-half year-olds versus eight-year-olds) don’t anticipate future events, so advice only works for them as reactive information. For example, if you looked outside and saw dark clouds, you would probably grab your umbrella before leaving the house. A toddler, according to the study, would only think of getting the umbrella after going outside and getting rained on. The knowledge that an umbrella will help prevent you from getting wet in the rain is there, but the cognitive ability to anticipate getting wet and thus get the umbrella ahead of time is not.

So, take heart. Your child is probably listening to you, and, when the situation you’re telling him about occurs, he will probably think of your advice and try to follow it. That does mean that advice about avoiding certain situations in the first place will probably not work very well, but (if your kid is anything like mine were at that age) you knew that already. Professor Yuko Munakata, the lead researcher, suggests trying to trigger the reactive function rather than telling your kids to plan ahead, but I’m not sure how that helps in some situations—I mean, it’s all well and good to say, as Munakata suggests, "I know you don’t want to take your coat now, but when you’re standing in the yard shivering later, remember that you can get your coat from your bedroom," but what do you do if you’re trying to get your kid not to touch the pan you just cooked dinner in?

So the bad news is that your toddler isn’t likely to take your advice until he’s in a situation where he thinks it’ll help. There are several pieces of good news: You’ve got a scientific study to point to, now, that helps explain why your kid seems to be ignoring you; You know there’s a good chance he’s really not ignoring you after all; And, best of all, you know he’ll grow out of it!

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