Allowing autonomy could boost toddlers' cognitive skills

New research has found that parents who encourage and support their young children to make decisions could be boosting their cognitive skills.

The study was carried out at the University of Montreal in Canada and involved 78 mothers and their children, who were visited at home once when the infants were 15 months old, then a further time when they were three years old.

What the study involved

Each visit lasted between 60 and 90 minutes and they saw the mothers asked to help the youngsters carry out tasks that were a little bit too difficult for them to master, such as building bricks into a tower or finishing puzzles.

The researchers analysed how the women used positive feedback and happy tones of voice; whether or not they saw things from the children's perspective; and how flexible they were in getting their offspring to stay on task. Opportunities to allow the children to make choices and play actively were also assessed.

During the second visit, the children were tested using games to show if they could delay gratification, had a good working memory and were able to think about multiple concepts at the same time, all measures of cognitive ability.

It was found that the children whose mothers were best at promoting autonomous behaviour achieved the highest scores in cognitive testing and vice versa.

Lead author of the study Celia Matte-Gagne said: "We have shown that the child's executive functioning is linked to the mother's ability to support his or her autonomy. Autonomy support includes things such as teaching children problem solving skills and involves taking the child's perspective while ensuring he or she takes an active role in completing tasks."

However, she added that consistency is important when it comes to executive functioning, as the biggest differences were noted in children experiencing consistently high versus consistently low degrees of autonomy support.

Opinions on autonomy from the experts

Child psychologists have long argued that youngsters who are not permitted to develop autonomy are likely to be at a disadvantage compared to their peers, with famous experts including Fordham & Anderson (1992) and Maxim (1997) suggesting they may be at risk of self-doubt and unwilling to take the risks they need to take in order to learn.

By offering choice from an early age, they get the chance to practise independence and responsibility while remaining under the care and control of their parents.

However, how do you implement this without wasting endless hours while your toddler decides what to wear and which toys to play with? And how can you ensure that it's not the toddler who ends up in control?

Top tips for offering choice to toddlers

The key is to offer choices within set boundaries so the child feels empowered but the parents don't end up tearing their hair out. For instance, rather than asking the toddler if they want to go upstairs for a nap and risk the reply being 'no', it might be an idea to ask if they would prefer to walk for their rest or be carried.

Similarly, instead of offering up the tot's entire wardrobe and ending up with them going out dressed as a pirate, try picking two outfits in advance and offering them the choice with the wardrobe doors closed.

It's easy to slip in a little more autonomy and hopefully reap the associated cognitive benefits without creating behaviour that might lead to problems, so try coming up with a few of your own techniques in your next play session.