Parents should think twice before brushing off their child's calls to "look at me!" A Concordia study published in the journal Child Development is the first to show that a toddler's expectations of how a parent will respond to their needs and bids for attention relate to how eager the toddler is to collaborate and learn.
Collaboration in toddlers has been linked to the acquisition of social rules and norms later in childhood. Understanding what contributes to promoting the sense of collaboration can help improve conscience development in children.
Marie-Pierre Gosselin, PhD candidate with Concordia's Department of Psychology and the Centre for Research in Human Development and lead author of the study, explains that "toddlers whose parents have consistently responded positively to their attention-seeking expect interactions to be fulfilling. As a result, they're eager to collaborate with their parents' attempts to socialize them."
While scientists and caregivers have long theorized that toddlers have certain expectations of their parent's behaviour, a reliable measure of those expectations was not available until today. By observing the quality of toddlers' attention-seeking behaviours, Gosselin and co-author David R. Forman, currently at the State University of New York at Geneseo, were able to quantify toddlers' expectations.
In the first part of the study, parent and child were put in the same room and the parent was asked to complete a long survey with questions that required attention and focus. This usually provoked attention-seeking behaviours in the child. Some toddlers pointed at and shared objects with their parent, laughed and smiled while talking to the parent, and used phrases like, "excuse me, mommy." This constituted high-quality behaviour in the researchers' eyes. Low-quality attention-seeking behaviour was shown by toddlers who cried, screamed, or even took the parent's pen and threw it across the room.
Gosselin says they expected to find that parents who had been attentive, sensitive and responsive to their child in a variety of contexts would have children who showed more positive, high-quality, attention-seeking behaviours than children of less responsive parents because these behaviours reflected the child's expectations of a parent's response.
In the second part of the study, the child watched a parent perform a series of actions (such as how to retrieve a ball using three specific movements) and then tried to imitate the action. Gosselin found that toddlers who showed positive attention-seeking behaviours collaborated more with the parent in the task than those who showed more negative attention-seeking behaviours when the parent was busy.
According to Gosselin, the study shows it is important to encourage positive or high-quality, attention-seeking in toddlers because it predicts their motivation to collaborate and participate in skill building activities.
"For parents it's important to know that it's not the amount of attention, but really the quality of attention sought that their toddler displays that matters for their development," says Gosselin.
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