Kristina R. Olson, Ph.D.

Kristina R Olson Ph.D.

Developing Minds

Toddler Knows Best

3-year-old children are surprisingly helpful.

Posted Feb 19, 2013

By Kristina Olson and Alia Martin

Several recent cookbooks have emerged to help you “sneak” vegetables into your children’s food without their even noticing. The description of The Sneaky Chef, for example, notes that the book can help you “ingeniously disguise” vegetables, while Deceptively Delicious is said to include recipes “stealthily packed with veggies.” Why do we go to great lengths to hide veggies in our children’s food? We do so because we know what’s best for our kids—we know that our kids should be eating vegetables even if they don’t want to.

As adults, we often try to force, convince, or trick our children into doing things that are best for them, and we even engage in this kind of behavior toward other adults at times. For example we may steer a friend struggling with his weight, toward a lower-calorie alternative to cheesecake and we do this because of a concern with for his best interests. Even though we’re not acting in line with what others say they want, we are typically trying to help the person by denying them what they ask for or enforcing things they explicitly do not want. Not only do people provide others with “paternalistic help” (whether the recipients of this help want it or not) in their daily lives, but we often see it enforced on a bigger scale as well. For instance, Mayor Bloomberg decided residents of the five boroughs should not drink too much sugary soda, so he banned containers of soda larger than 16 ounces. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia forbids girls from playing in their youth football league “in an effort to ensure a safe and appropriate playing environment.” And most states require seatbelt use “for your protection.”

Recently, our research team has begun investigating whether this tendency to override others’ explicit wishes in favor of what we believe is best for them is something that only adults do—since adults often do have good reason to think they know better than their kids!—or if instead even young children might paternalistically help others too. Our studies were a bit simpler (and less ethically controversial) than some of the examples above. In one study, an adult made a request of a 3-year-old child, something like “Could you hand me that cup so I can pour myself some water?” But children had more knowledge than the adult did. Half the time, children were aware that the cup the adult was pointing to had a big hole in the bottom of it, but they also knew there was another (non-broken) cup elsewhere in the room. The question was what would children do? Would they follow the request, handing over the object the adult wanted, or would they instead decide they knew better than the adult what was best for them?

We found that, like the parent who sneaks in the vegetables, 3-year-olds also engaged in paternalistic helping. They ignored the adult’s specific request and instead offered the better alternative. We also checked to make sure kids don’t just think it’s fun to deny people what they want—and they don’t. Whenever the adult asked for an object that the child knew worked just fine, the child handed that object over. We’re now pushing the envelope a bit further, asking whether children will ignore a specific request even when the adult knows that he wants is bad for him. That is, imagine you asked someone to hand you your cigarettes. Clearly you know they aren’t good for you, but you may want them anyway. Will children be willing to say no?

Copyright 2013 Kristina Olson, Alia Martin

About the Author

Kristina R. Olson, Ph.D.

Kristina R. Olson, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science at Yale University.

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