A toddler having a tantrum. | Wikipedia

Channel 4 has a series available now simply called “Babies”. I highly recommend it and last Saturday I watched the episode on toddlers. As I was brought up, phrases like terrible twos” were banded about without caution, and it may well be one reason why I went on to study psychology, because generalisations such as terrible are not actually that helpful.

The episode explored three aspects of being a toddler – the first looked at a toddler’s ability to put themselves in the shoes of others, the second explored helping behaviour and the third the notion of effort. The psychologists were basically questioning the belief that toddlers are still very ill equipped as mini humans and that they are still relying intellectually on us adults with little input of their own.

Now I am sure when you look at or recall your toddler aged children you have your own experiences of their intelligence at this age. They seem to be driven naturally to explore, observe and copy, but these experiments were trying to fathom whether 14 to 18 month year olds were just simply copying or if they brought their own reasoning to the party so to speak.

The first studies investigated the idea that perhaps children much younger than we previously thought could consider the notion that others may not like what they like. This is quite sophisticated thinking as it involves a sense of self and other. It was a simple test where toddlers under and over 14 months were presented with two bowls – one containing raw broccoli, the other tasty crackers. The toddlers inevitably chose the crackers to munch on with glee, largely ignoring the broccoli. The experimenter would then move the bowls back towards her and start to really enjoy eating the broccoli, no words but facial expressions and sounds that implied this broccoli was the best taste ever!

The second phase of the experiment involved presenting both bowls again to the child and asking for food to be given to the experimenter. Typically the younger toddlers gave the experimenter the crackers – the food that they themselves liked. But around 14 months onwards the child offered the broccoli. In other words it seems that these older toddlers are capable of accepting that we may like something different to them, and furthermore actually acting on that, offering us what we like – perhaps this is one of the first signs of interacting in society, an ability to understand others are different.

The second experiments were testing the age old nature nurture question of whether helping behaviour in toddlers was innate or learned for those around them. The psychologist argued that if the child has an inbuilt system to cooperate then they would naturally lend a hand even if not asked. The psychologists set up various scenarios where he would accidentally drop something on the floor and pretend that he couldn’t reach it to complete this task. Again, no words, just a gaze towards the object such as a cup and maybe a stretch to infer that they couldn’t reach it or needed it. Once again, the toddlers excelled, leaving their own game that they were involved in to pick up the object and pass it back to the experimenter. He concluded that toddlers already have an inbuilt helping mechanism that prepares them for interacting in a human society. Without cooperation societies fail.

The third area explored was the role of effort. How important when we model behaviour for our children is our own demonstration of effort. I must be honest here and admit that I had no idea I was modelling effort to my daughter when she was a toddler. If I had known I may have paid a bit more attention!

The experimenter would in the first condition show interest in a toy puzzle whilst the toddler was observing. The experimenter would model how easy it was to complete the puzzle and then pass the toy to the child before leaving the room to observe on remote camera.

In the second condition, the experimenter would show great difficulty solving the puzzle but would continue with great effort until it was solved.

The results were interesting because in both conditions the child was passed a dud puzzle, one that could not be solved. In the first condition – ease- the child tried a few times and gave up but in the second condition they persevered for much longer, almost twice as many tries before giving up. So at this very early age, around 18 months, the way we tackle problem solving affects our children long into later life. I wonder how many of us thought that it would be a good thing to show our children how easy most things are, but in fact, this approach may lead to them having less resilience later in life.

I would argue that all ages are terrific, but based on the science that we have, I would encourage a language of terrific twos, rather than terrible twos. With our added technological advances, it is no wonder that a two year old can scroll through an iPad and select their favourite nursery rhyme or TV show. Human beings are extraordinary, we learn and change so fast that it may be worth savouring the moments when your toddler stamps and screams, it is a sign of their separateness, their autonomy and how they are beginning to assert that they are equipped to interact in society.