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June 06th, 2016

Cake and/or ice cream, to choose or not to choose

An article appeared in PsyPost (a psychology and neuroscience news website) this week about how children confuse simple words like ‘and’ with ‘or’ which had The Parent Practice team excitedly sending emails back and forth (don’t laugh it’s to your benefit!)

Apparently young children (under the age of 6 at least) confuse the word ‘or’ with ‘and’ so that when parents offer cake or ice cream children hear ‘cake and ice cream’.  Doesn’t that explain a lot?

Researchers in linguistics at MIT and a team at Carleton University have conducted studies with children between the ages of 3 and 6 and found that there are subtle differences between how adults and children clarify the meaning of sentences. Both adults and children test out the meaning of statements. Take the sentence “Max ate some of the biscuits.” Now suppose you find out that Max actually ate all of the biscuits. So the sentence “Max ate some of the biscuits” is still technically correct, but it would be more accurate to say, “Max ate all of the biscuits.”

Adults can make this distinction – we can compare the two sentences and consider the implications of using ‘all’ or ‘some’ and recognise that each alternative spells out a specific new meaning. But guess what? The researchers discovered that children can’t make the same distinctions as adults. When they hear ‘cake or ice-cream’ they are very much focussed on two of the three words! And the subtle and important implications of ‘or’ is missed.

What can parents do? Should we not offer children choices? Offering choices is generally thought to be a good idea as children at this age have so few opportunities to make decisions for themselves and can feel very frustrated and powerless.

But choices have downsides. If you have a child in this age bracket you may have watched them choose cake, only to be terribly disappointed with their choice later and wished they’d chosen ice cream… and have a meltdown. When a child realises that making a choice means giving up on something or losing something it takes maturity they may not have yet to handle the responsibility of that choice. Their pre-frontal cortex which governs perspective and the ability to weigh the consequences of decisions will not be fully mature until their 20s. Under the age of 6 the brain is still in its infancy and is largely governed by emotions.

So what do we do? Not give them any choices at all?

No. We think there is still merit in giving choices for under 6s (perhaps less for under 3s) but with this knowledge we can be very clear about the potential for confusion and support our children to handle the implications of their choices.

“William would you like some dessert? You can have yoghurt or fruit. You know that means just one. I’m going to put the one you choose on the table and the other one in the fridge. That will be for tomorrow. Which one for today and which one for tomorrow?”

William chooses fruit but later wants yoghurt. “Oh you want both the fruit and the yoghurt. That’s hard for you to remember that Mummy said just one. I guess you didn’t understand that and now you feel so disappointed. Maybe you wish you’d chosen the yoghurt.” This may seem like a big fuss, especially when it’s between two fairly healthy options but the parent is supporting the child to deal with disappointment by naming the feeling.

“Hannah, you’re going to have to think carefully about how you want to spend your birthday money. There’s enough there for you to buy one thing. You liked both the bubble factory and the butterfly mosaics but you can only choose one. I’m sure you wish you could have both. And when you choose one you might feel sad later that you didn’t choose the other one. If that happens come and tell me and I’ll give you a hug. That’s the tough bit about making choices. The good bit is you get to choose something that you really like yourself. You get to be in charge of this decision.”

Giving those pesky feelings a label helps strengthen the neural pathways between the emotional part of the brain and the logical part and at is the core of developing emotional intelligence.

Does your child get to choose sometimes? Does he sometimes change his mind? Does she want both? Next time there’s a meltdown tell them you know what it’s like to really, really want something when a few minutes ago you really, really wanted something else. It’s so confusing! Let us know how you get on.

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