Watch How Toddlers Regulate Their Behavior To Avoid Making Adults Mad

A fascinating look at how small children pick up on far more than we think they do.

Toddlers who overhear adults disagreeing can use that emotional information to guide their own behavior, according to a research study from the Institute of Learning & Brain Sciences. Scientists came to this conclusion by conducting a series of experiments where toys were given to young children to play with. So far, so good. But what happens if an adult- even a stranger– does or says something to make the toddler feel that this normal behavior may actually be quite inappropriate?

In this short video re-enactment of the experiment, as an experimenter shows a toy to a 15-month-old boy and then gives him a chance to play with them. Then a second adult, the “Emoter,” enters the room. The experimenter shows her how to play with a toy, a strand of beads that make a rattling sound when dropped into a plastic cup. The Emoter calls these actions “aggravating” and “annoying.”

The child has a second chance to play with the beads and cup. But the “Emoter” is watching with a neutral facial expression, and he takes these signals on board and chooses not to play with the toy. His little face clearly shows anxiety that the lady who just entered might get mad if he touches the beads. This demonstrates that he’s using the emotional information to regulate his own behavior. The experiment was published in the journal Cognitive Development with the title, “Infant, control thyself: Infants’ integration of multiple social cues to regulate their imitative behavior.”

“Through studying the roots of social-emotional learning we are illuminating an important aspect of human personality and what helps kids succeed in life and school,” said researcher Andrew Meltzoff. “There’s been a lot of attention on child problem-solving, but if we want to understand what makes kids tick, we need to study their social-emotional lives, too.” He says the findings are a step in “shining a light on how infants begin to understand and cope with the drama of human emotions.”

This article (Watch How Toddlers Regulate Their Behavior To Avoid Making Adults Mad) is free and open source. You have permission to republish this article under a Creative Commons license with attribution to the author and

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