Your Toddler’s Impression Management & You

I love children’s research…and how it applies to our families. For instance, a recent set of four studies out of Emory University involved 144 children 14- to 24-months-old and a remote-controlled robot.  In the first experiment, an adult showed the toddler how to use the remote to operate the robot. Then the adult either watched the toddler or turned away to read a magazine. The toddler showed more inhibition playing with the remote when the adult watched them. No real surprise, I guess. Let’s move on to the second experiment.

In the second experiment, one adult had two remotes. When using the first remote, the adult smiled and said,”Wow! Isn’t that great?” But, when using the second remote, the adult said, “Uh-oh! Oops, oh no!” The adult then left the remotes and stepped away. He either watched the toddler or turned away to read the magazine. The toddler pressed the buttons on the remote that seemed to elicit apositive response from the adult when the adult watched him. However, when the adult looked at the magazine, the toddler pushed more buttons on the remote that was associated with the negative response! Hmmmm. Starting to get a little more interesting.

The third experiment was similar to the second. However, the adult simply gave the neutral response of “Oh, wow” to both remotes. Now the toddler did not choose one remote over the other depending on whether the adult watched. This “control experiment” reveals that the adult’s initial response has an impact on the toddler’s later response to the remotes.

Finally, the fourth experiment used two adults sitting next to one another sharing one remote. One adult smiled and gave the positive response “Yay! The toy moved” when pressing the buttons of the remote. The second adult frowned and said, “Yuck! The toy moved” when pressing the same remote. Now, both adults stepped away to watch the toddler or read a magazine. The toddler played with the remote significantly more often when the adult who gave the positive response was watching.

Think about what the toddlers did in these experiments.

  1. The toddlers modified their behavior to please the one watching them…but only when the one watching had given a positive response to the toy.
  2. The toddlers explored the remote that elicited a negative response when the adult was not looking but used the remote that elicited a positive response when the adult was looking.
  3. The toddlers didn’t change their behavior for the adult who simply gave a neutral or negative response to the remote.

Did you catch the underlying message? Toddlers care about their image, how others perceive them. They modified their behavior in response to the adult watching them and that adult’s enacted values. They wanted that adult to think the best of them. They were concerned with impression management. Let’s apply that impression management to your parenting.

  1. Children want to please their parents, the adult who interacts with them the most. So, if you want to influence your children, engage them. Interact with them. Let them witness what you like, the values that energize you and the people that bring you joy. They will seek similar behaviors.
  2. Children engage in those activities that please their parents, especially when their parents are watching them. Keep an eye on your children. Give them freedom, but build your presence into their lives so they “take you with them” wherever they go.  
  3. On the other hand, children may explore those things they know their parents dislike. The more adamantly a parent expresses dislike in something, the more curious children become. However, a parental neutral response does not elicit the same curiosity (see experiment number three above). So, energetically identify those values and activities you like but use a more neutral, less energetic tone in addressing those values and activities with which you disagree. (Taking Verbal Snapshots can help.)

Our toddlers are invested in impression management. They want you to think highly of them. Use that to help instill positive values and behaviors in your children. 

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