Parenting that shows children who’s boss gets the thumbs up

Parents who believe in showing their children who is boss may be on the right track, according to a new study.

Toddlers respond to leadership.
Toddlers respond to leadership.

Parents who believe in showing their children who is boss may be on the right track, according to a new study.

Toddlers aged 17 months expect leaders to step up when a member of their group breaks the rules, research suggests. Scientists say their findings indicate children in their second year of life have a well-developed understanding of social hierarchies and power dynamics.

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The research relied on a well-established method that gives insight into the reasoning of children too young to fully express themselves verbally.

Infants typically stare longer at events that unfold in ways they don’t expect.

In a series of experiments, researchers used bear puppets to entertain the children who sat comfortably on a parent’s lap. Some of the 120 toddlers watched skits involving a protagonist bear that two other bears treated as a leader.

Some saw a protagonist bear that appeared to have no authority over the other two bears.

In all of the scenes the protagonist presented the other bears with two toys for them to share, but one bear quickly grabbed both toys, leaving none for the other bear.

The children were then shown the protagonist either rectifying this transgression by redistributing one of the toys from the wrongdoer bear to the victim bear or they watched the protagonist ignore the misbehaviour by approaching each bear and not redistributing a toy.

University of Illinois psychology professor Renee Baillargeon, who led the research, said: “Infants stared longer when the leader ignored the wrongdoing than when she rectified it.

“This suggests that infants expected the leader to intervene and right the wrong in her group and were surprised when she took no such action.”

When the leader ignored the transgression, the wrongdoer bear was also stared at for longer than the victim bear, as if something about the wrongdoer would explain the leader’s reluctance to correct her.

The toddlers seemed unsurprised when a protagonist who was not a leader failed to redress the same wrongdoing.

The study was conducted in the university’s Infant Cognition Lab. She said: “In two experiments, infants consistently stared longer when leaders failed to act against wrongdoers.

“But they held no particular expectation for intervention from non-leaders.”

In a third experiment, one of the bears announced it did not want a toy and the other bear took both toys. The children in this experiment stared longer when the leader intervened to make sure that each bear had one toy. Researchers say the findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, provide new evidence that infants can reason about leaders.