A Case for the Distractible Toddler: Psychologists Suggest Parents Should Wait to Teach Toddlers Self-Control

Filed under: In The News, Research Reveals: Toddlers & Preschoolers

Researchers are posing new questions about toddler brain development. Credit: debaird, Flickr

Toddlers can be maddeningly distractible, but should we really be trying to teach them self-control?

University of Pennsylvania neuropsychologist Sharon Thompson-Schill and her colleagues who study the prefrontal cortex -- the part of the brain that filters out irrelevant information and allows us to focus -- are suggesting that an immature prefrontal cortex may not be a deficit at all, despite how frustrating it can be to a parent trying to get a toddler dressed and out the door.

Rather, they believe it's a learning advantage in the first years of life. Their research, published in the most recent issue of the journal "Current Directions in Psychological Science," asks whether it may be detrimental to push a developing brain toward maturity too soon."The prefrontal cortex is crucial for the ability to regulate thought and control behavior," the report explains. They point out (and any parent can tell you from experience) that this self-regulating part of the brain doesn't kick in fully until about age 4. That's why toddlers and preschoolers, as the report puts it, "exhibit market deficits in cognitive control."

Decades of parenting advice books have given us an arsenal of approaches -- some more effective that others -- for teaching little kids to focus and avoid distraction. This report suggests it may be better to allow toddlers their inability to filter out irrelevant information, because it helps them learn.

The researchers write: "We contend that prolonged prefrontal immaturity is, on balance, advantageous and that the positive consequences of this developmental trajectory outweigh the negative." Specifically, they argue the cognitive control we wish our toddlers had actually impedes learning about basic societal conventions (including acquiring language). Delayed prefrontal lobe maturation, they say, "is a necessary adaptation for human learning of social and linguistic conventions."

"A system optimized for performance," they explain, "may not be optimal for learning, and vice versa."

Rather than reporting on the results of a single study, this research paper explores recent studies into ADHD, autism, creativity and sleep to draw conclusions about cognitive control in young kids. They don't offer specific advice for parents of toddlers, but they've issued a call for further research into this subject. Stay tuned for more on that.

And until that research can be done, try to look on the bright side: The next time your toddler takes all morning to eat breakfast because he's distracted by 16 different things, consider that his prefrontal cortex may be doing exactly what nature intended it to do.

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.