Cake or broccoli? How to get your toddler to choose broccoli every time

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Cake, or broccoli? How to get your toddler to choose broccoli.
Cake, or broccoli? How to get your toddler to choose broccoli.

My son is two, and he speaks well for his age. While it is amazing to have insight into the previously mysterious workings of his mind, I now also find myself debating with a toddler.

I believe in offering my children choices, but often, I provide a bit of a biased array of options. I want to go for a walk, so I ask "Do you want to go to the park now, or later?" or when I want my youngest to take a bath I'll ask "Do you want to bath with fish, or dinosaurs?"

This method works well enough, but sometimes I want to go to the park now, and he chooses later.

So I was excited to read a study by Emily Sumner, a researcher at the Department of Cognitive Sciences at the University of California in Irvine, California, that has inadvertently given parents everywhere the words they need to persuade their toddler to choose a predetermined option.

In scientific terms, the research shows that:

1) toddlers demonstrate a robust verbal recency bias when asked “or” questions in a lab-based task and a naturalistic corpus of caretaker-child speech interactions,
2) the recency bias weakens with age, and
3) the recency bias strengthens as the syllable-length of the choices gets longer.

In short, "these results indicate that children show a different type of response bias than adults, recency instead of primacy. Further, the results may suggest that this bias stems from increased constraints on children’s working memory."


WATCH: Heart-warming moment toddler tries to use sign language to communicate with deaf dad

Additionally, while parents and researchers alike often assume that kids understand everything they say, this study suggests that they're just repeating the most recent thing they've heard, "and do not necessarily indicate that the child comprehends the words they speak."

They warn researchers to be careful of the methods they use when experimenting with kids, and to ensure "methods that require verbal responses should ensure question choices are carefully counterbalanced".

Parents, on the other hand, can greatly benefit from this insight, and by carefully ordering choices or consciously befuddling toddlers, they can get them to choose a predetermined outcome: “Would you like cake or broccoli?” or "Would you like to go to the park later on today when it might be colder, or now?" 

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