60-Second Mind

Three-Year-Olds Know Better

A study finds that three-year-old children know a lot more than we might give them credit for. Christie Nicholson reports

Next time a three-year-old tells you what to do you might want to listen. Because three-year-olds can recognize when we adults are doing something counterproductive and are keen to help us find a better way. That’s according to new research in the journal Developmental Psychology. [Alia Martin and Kristina R. Olson, When Kids Know Better: Paternalistic Helping in 3-Year-Old Children]

Scientists had 58 three-year-olds examine several functional and nonfunctional objects. Like a real phone and a toy phone, or a working marker and a dried-up marker.

Then the researcher would say something like, “I need to make a phone call, can you get me the phone.” Sometimes they’d point to the real phone and other times point to the toy phone. The children would consistently bring over the functional item, regardless of whether the researcher pointed to it or asked specifically for it. In contrast, when they were told the item would just be thrown out, they’d bring either the nonfunctional or functional object. And in the case when any object would do, such as something that could act as a paperweight, the children brought either the fake one or the real one.

Ultimately the children focused on the end goal and deliberately choose the best item, as opposed to what was instructed of them. A good reminder for us adults.

—Christie Nicholson

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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