A Case for the Distractible Toddler

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

By Wray Herbert

When my oldest son was three years old, someone gave him a very large can of Legos as a gift, enough to build a fortress. So we decided to build a fortress. Or I did, but he was an enthusiastic co-conspirator in the project—at least for about ten minutes. But then he got distracted by the sound of an ambulance siren outside; then he re-discovered a plastic triceratops; then he thought he should inspect the ashes in the fireplace. I tried to reengage him in the fortress, because I was doing an excellent job. But he had lots of things to do. He was busy.

Toddlers are distractible. Their minds flit constantly here and there, and they have a terrible time concentrating on even the most stimulating project. They might be fascinated by a colorful new toy, but only until the next best toy comes along, or the next or the next.

This can be maddening for parents, especially for those of us who want to give our kids a leg up on getting into a premier university. Parents often try to teach their toddlers self-control and mental discipline, to rein in their impulsivity. Increasingly, pre-school teachers do this, too. They see inattention and lack of focus as academic problems to be fixed.

But should we really be trying to teach self-control? Is there perhaps a reason why toddlers are such space cadets? Psychologists are beginning to raise these questions, and some are even suggesting that it may be detrimental to the developing brain to push it toward maturity too soon. Indeed, children’s impulsivity may be an essential tradeoff, one that allows the young mind to learn social conventions and language.

University of Pennsylvania neuropsychologist Sharon Thompson-Schill and her colleagues study a region of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, or PFC. This is basically the part of the brain that gives us mental agility and self-control; it filters out irrelevant information and allows us to focus. It is also the last part of the brain to mature and become fully functional. It lags behind the rest of the brain until about age four.

Why would that be? Well, the psychologists speculate that an immature PFC may not be a deficit at all, but rather an advantage in the first years of life. Here’s an example of their evidence, discussed in the most recent issue of the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science. It has to do with guessing. Say you are naïve about the game of football, but you are playing a guessing game: Will the offensive team pass or run the ball? You observe that the team passes the ball three out of every four plays, so you guess “pass” 75 percent of the time and “run” 25 percent of the time.

That’s not smart. Smart would be saying “pass” all the time. And if you played this game with your toddler, that is likely what he or she would do. Toddlers are often better at this, because their immature brains are still operating on a brute-force competition between two alternatives: pass or run. They are not yet capable of nuance and probability. That is, they’re not really capable of guessing.

And good thing, because toddlers can’t afford to guess. They have a lot of learning to do, and much of that learning has to do with hard-and-fast rules and conventions. Having an immature and inflexible mind is an advantage in finding patterns in the chaos of the world. In fact, this rigidity may be essential to language acquisition. Learning language is an intimidating task; it requires saying the right thing in the right context, and agreeing with everyone else that these are the right things to say. Consider the example of irregular verbs: They are simply conventions; they can only be learned by brute force, and that’s precisely how toddlers learn them. It’s no surprise, the psychologists note, that kids pick up languages so effortlessly compared to adults

And it’s not just language. Toddlers are mastering all sorts of social conventions that, like irregular verbs, simply must be learned. They’re the rules of the world. In this sense, trying to hasten the brain’s development may be not only difficult by unwise.

For more insights into the quirks of human nature, visit the “Full Frontal Psychology” blog at True/Slant. Selections from “We’re Only Human” also appear in the magazine Scientific American Mind.

posted by Wray Herbert @ 1:25 PM