Preschoolers Store Info and Use As Needed

Here is an enlightening piece of research for those of us raising the strange little creatures known as preschoolers, and those of us providing treatment to families raising the little barbarians as well. Research by Colorado Professor Yuko Munakata suggests that three-year-olds are often listening when you give them directions — they simply choose to ignore you until there is evidence that the directions are needed. From Science Daily:

“… For example, let’s say it’s cold outside and you tell your 3-year-old to go get his jacket out of his bedroom and get ready to go outside. You might expect the child to plan for the future, think ‘OK it’s cold outside so the jacket will keep me warm,’ ” said Chatham. “But what we suggest is that this isn’t what goes on in a 3-year-old’s brain. Rather, they run outside, discover that it is cold, and then retrieve the memory of where their jacket is, and then they go get it.”

Munakata doesn’t claim to be a parental expert, but she does think their new study has relevance to parents’ daily interactions with their toddlers.

“If you just repeat something again and again that requires your young child to prepare for something in advance, that is not likely to be effective,” Munakata said. “What would be more effective would be to somehow try to trigger this reactive function. So don’t do something that requires them to plan ahead in their mind, but rather try to highlight the conflict that they are going to face. Perhaps you could say something like ‘I know you don’t want to take your coat now, but when you’re standing in the yard shivering later, remember that you can get your coat from your bedroom.”

I would argue that this tendency to ignore advice until there is evidence to support its necessity extends beyond preschool — I still go through this with my nine-year-old! The point is, you can probably save your breath and a lot of extra annoyed feelings by accepting that your small child’s brain does not operate in a way that tends to accept futuristic warnings. Showing them what will happen if they don’t listen, or helping them imagine the scenario of how they will benefit if they heed your directions, will probably be more effective than just repeating yourself ad nauseum.

(cross-posted on my psychotherapy site at


5 thoughts on “Preschoolers Store Info and Use As Needed

  1. And this surprises folks…LOL! I was married to a 7 year old (44 yr old) that still subscribed to that behavior.

    Speaking of Preschoolers and young’ins…what is your thoughts on the Sex Education Bill that has been a bit of contension in the news?

    1. Yeah, sometimes the problem with ignoring advice can be lifelong. Anyway, I’m not up on the Sex Education Bill, but would like to be. Can you provide a link to some news/summary on it?

      1. Suzanne provided these links for background on the sex education bill:

        It is House Bill 5643 which can be found on this page:

        Recent Articles:

        My general sense looking at this is I would be in support of the measure. I agree that health information for school students should contain more uniform information about boundaries and what is considered private — both in speech and in action — in terms of sexual behavior. And also the obvious need for more information about pregnancy and pregnancy prevention once kids are of age where it is a risk. I think it would help to cut down on the confusion, as well as feelings of shame and guilt about sexual behavior. But you are talking to someone who is going to a 10-hour seminar this weekend on sexual attitudes, as the beginning of possibly training to become credentialed as a sex therapist.

        I can appreciate some parents’ concerns that kids may get messages at school that seem too personal, but that is probably happening anyway. Saying the “potty words” was a popular form of mischief when I was in elementary school and it probably still is today. I say the more demystifying around the topic, the better.

  2. Upon reading the House Bill 5643, I can’t help but think this could be a useful Bill, however, the design of the idea needs more processing. The most blatent mistake is that it should be from an older grade…perhaps 4th or 6th grade up. Who would set the peramiters, as this is subjective and interpretation is very dangerous. I am struck with the concept that while some high schooler’s are contracting STD’s and becoming pregnant…the incidence of this compared to children that are molested are unaccounted for. Clearly when one views the below information and knowing there are hundred’s of thousands of registered and unregistered SEX OFFENDER living in my family, your family, your community, your coaches, churches etc. Stranger danger should be taught. Quite frankly, we need to have health and include LIFE survival. How to balance a check book, bullying, self esteem improvement, how to cope and tools in order to do so, why it’s important to be part of your community etc. It should also encompass the Lindsay Burke Act on dating etc. While I believe there is a whole host of things to teach…and I do teach my 5 and 7 year old to NOT trust anyone because I know the cardinal rules were broken with me as a child. Children need to have some fear, but to teach about sex – absolutely not. I read some blog that a thoughtful commentator said we should call Sex Education “Life Education” and under that heading we could be less restrictive. This was not thought out enough, I would much rather have seen a Bill that would cover this epidemic:

    According to Charles Keating of Citizens for Decency Through Law, research reveals that 77% of child molesters of boys and 87% of child molesters of girls admitted imitating the sexual behavior they had seen in pornography they had watched. Roughly 33% of girls and 14% of boys are molested before the age of 18, according to the U.S. Justice Department. Nearly 2/3 of all sexual assaults reported involved minors and roughly 1/3 involved children under the age of 12. In most cases, however, child molestation goes unreported. Estimates are that only 35% of sexual abuse is reported. Kids can be frightened or embarrassed and many times do not say anything.

    Warning Signs of Child Molestation:

    Below are some of the most common signs of child molestation:

    -Changes in behavior such as withdrawal, fearfulness, crying without provocation.
    -Change in eating habits.
    -Disrupted sleep patterns, fear of the dark or nightmares.
    -Regression to more infantile behavior such as bedwetting, sucking their thumbs, or abnormal and
    excessive crying.
    -Bruises, rashes, cuts, limping, or poorly explained injuries
    -Vaginal or rectal bleeding, pain, itching, swollen genitals, vaginal discharge, or sexually transmitted
    -Stained or torn underwear.
    -Unusual interest in or knowledge of sexually related matters or expression of affection in ways
    inappropriate for a child of that age.
    -Fear of a person or an intense dislike at being left somewhere or with someone (relatives, babysitters,

    Other behavioral signals such as aggressive or disruptive behavior, running away, failing in school.
    If a child tells you that they have been sexually abused in any way, believe them. Children rarely lie about sexual abuse. 80% of all child molestation cases involve someone the child knows. Additionally, it’s especially important to be supportive of the child. Children have an enormous fear that they are the one to blame in this situation and it’s important that they realize it is not their fault. Alleviating this self-blame is extremely important.

    Personally, I don’t want my kids being taught about sex – rather about private staying private…and that parents ‘should do’, but let’s face it…not everyone is like the moderator’s that run this site. That said, older children I would be okay with it – only if the preditor talk is inclusive of those teachings.

  3. No doubt, it is a very important issue that all parents must address – and one that requires ongoing, open communication with their children.

    The single most important thing to remember when teaching your children about stranger danger is to instill confidence, rather than fear.

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