'Terrible Twos' Not Inevitable: With Engaged Parenting, Happy Babies Can Become Happy Toddlers

Parents should not feel pressured to make their young children undertake structured learning or achieve specific tasks, particularly during lockdown. A new study of children under the age of two has found that parents who take a more flexible approach to their child’s learning can - for children who were easy babies - minimize behavioral problems during toddlerhood.

Flexible Parenting

The flexible method of parenting, known as ‘autonomy support’, places emphasis on the child taking the lead. As the child engages in tasks, parents should watch and adjust how they respond according to how the child is managing, say the researchers. They acknowledge that this method of helping the child to be in control is not necessarily easy.

“It’s not about doing everything for your child, or directing their actions. It’s more of a to-and-fro between parent and child. Parents who do best at this can sit back and watch when they see their child succeeding with something, but increase support or adapt the task when they see the child struggling,” said Professor Claire Hughes, Deputy Director of the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge, and joint first author of the study with Dr Rory Devine at the University of Birmingham’s School of Psychology.

Simple tasks were used to test the level of autonomy support parents gave to their child. In one, each child was given farm animal pieces that fitted into cut-out shapes on a board. Some of the parents appeared quite anxious for their child to put the pieces in the right places, and gave them a lot of help. Others spotted that the task was too difficult for their child, and let the game evolve by following the child’s lead.

“We had some children who took two animal pieces from a wooden farm puzzle and started clapping them together, and making a game out of the fact that they made a clapping noise. Here, parents might respond by encouraging the child to make animal noises that match the animals being clapped together,” said Devine. ”Autonomy supportive parenting is about being flexible, following a child’s lead, and providing just the right amount of challenge.” 

Playful Interaction

During lockdown, many parents are having to look after young children at home rather than leaving them in nursery care during working hours. Trying to keep children motivated and engaged all day can be a daunting task. Yet having more time to spend with young children can also be seen as a rare opportunity to explore new ways of engaging with them, say the researchers.

“Rather than trying to make a child achieve a rigidly defined task, autonomy support is more of a playful interaction. It promotes the child’s problem solving and their ability to learn, by letting games or tasks evolve into experiences that engage them,” said Hughes. 

Previous studies have looked at links between executive function and antisocial behavior, and separately at family influences on conduct problems. This study is unique in its direct observational measures of parent-child interactions, in combination with a group of executive function tasks. 

The researchers found the link between executive function at 14 months and reduced problem behaviors at 24 months held up even when controlling for other factors like a child's language skills, and the quality of mother-child interactions. 

 StepUp Summary

This article points out how helpful it can be to take a flexible approach to our child's learning. When we understand that individual differences such as having an "easy baby" or an "irritable baby" can affect a child's response to learning, we can encourage learning through daily household routines which already matter to our children. "First set the table, then eat" is a learning behavior we can practice 3 times a day!  Daily routines become good habits, and good habits become useful learning behaviors. Learning behaviors are behaviors that help children learn. These behaviors include sustained attention, problem-solving, taking initiative, and choosing challenge. Practicing these learning behaviors from birth to 4 will enable and empower children to use these skills as tools for new learning once they begin traditional learning readiness and then academic learning in school.

This research was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, the National Science Foundation and the Dutch Research Council (NWO). 

Article reposted from University of Cambridge.