It looks like there has been a hurricane in your living room. Trains, cars and books cover the couch and the floor. The toy box in the corner has been tipped over, spilling toys all over the rug. Of course, you have friends coming over for dinner in an hour.
‘Honey, our friends are coming over tonight’, you say with frustration in your voice. ‘Could you please put your toys away?’
Just when you think you’ll have to clean this up yourself, you find your toddler right there next to you lending a hand. Just a few months ago, you’d feel lucky if he helped put one toy away before running off. Over the past few months, he has seemed more and more willing to do what you say without making a fuss.
So what’s changed?
What is self-regulation?
There is no magic moment when children become more likely to follow directions.
From around 12 months, something very important happens. Children begin to develop the ability to control their urges, change their behaviour, and might start to do what mum or dad says.
Not all of the time, of course. But as children grow, so does their ability to stop themselves from doing something they want to do (like writing on the walls) and perform tasks that they don’t like (picking up their toys), even when parents or caregivers aren't around.
The name for this wonderful part of development is ‘self-regulation’. It is one of the most important milestones of life. Without it, we would have a very hard time functioning, learning lessons in school, playing with friends, or getting along with people in general.
Even though just about every child develops some level of self-regulation, each person is different. Some kids will naturally develop this ability earlier than others. Just as some children show more shyness, some children show more ‘effortful control’ which is a personality trait that leads to self-regulation.
Two sides of self-regulation
For children, there are two sides to self-regulation:
- ‘the dos’ – for example, ‘Wash your hands before dinner’
- ‘the don’ts’ – for example, ‘Don’t throw daddy’s keys across the room!’
For a child, the ‘dos’ include doing things or finishing things she really doesn't want to do. ‘Don’ts’ include stopping herself from doing something she wants to do. As most parents and caregivers can attest, children deal with ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ in very different ways.
In a recent study, researchers watched as children from ages one to four were put into common ‘do’ and ‘don’t’ situations. In one test, children were placed in a room and asked to put away toys scattered around a play area. In another, children were told not to touch a shelf full of interesting toys. In each situation, the adults would leave the room and the children were videotaped.
As you may have guessed, children were much better at following the ‘don’t’ requests rather than the ‘do’ requests. Why that is remains unknown. But the researchers have a few theories.
Most kids hear ‘don'ts’ more often and at an earlier age than ‘dos.’ Words like ‘Don’t touch that hot stove!’ come before ‘Brush your teeth before bedtime’. Another reason might be that it takes more mental effort for children to force themselves to do something they’d rather not do than to stop doing something fun and exciting.
How self-regulation develops
Most children get better at following parents’ requests as they grow older, and there’s usually a lot of improvement between ages 1-3:
- In general, self-regulation begins between 12-18 months. This is when children become more aware of social demands and develop the ability to change their behaviour when a parent asks. In most cases, this early step in self-control requires an adult to be nearby.
- By 24 months, this ability improves to the point where children start to develop self-control, or the ability to follow wishes more often when mum and dad aren’t around.
- By 36 months, most children can internalise parents’ guidance. In other words, children will act in ways that reflect how they think mum or dad would want them to in different situations.
Why aren’t children better at self-regulation at earlier ages? Researchers still need to nail down the details, but effortful control and self-regulation appear to be related to several areas of brain development – especially those that are involved with attention and resolving conflict. Effortful control (the underlying personality trait) has also been linked to the development of empathy, guilt and a conscience, which tends to develop in a child’s second year.
On days when your child just won’t listen, keep in mind that self-regulation doesn’t develop overnight. It’s a skill that grows over time, especially during those crucial years before four. And it may be one of the most important developments in childhood. The ability to follow directions and behave is something we all need to learn in order to function in our families and cultures.
Helpful parenting tips
- Expect it to take a while. Developing the ability to control urges and stop doing something, or continuing to do things when you don’t want to, is difficult for all of us and can take years.
- Children are more likely to misbehave in certain types of situations. Be aware of tempting settings – like the supermarket – and be prepared to help your child through them.
- Create situations where your child can explore without hearing lots of ‘don’ts’. For example, you could let your child into the pots and pans cupboard.
- Catch your child doing lots of things right – like not touching something when you ask him not to – and praise him for it.
- Be gentle when teaching children how to control urges – temptations can be strong.
- Help your child as she learns to do chores, like picking up toys. Make tasks as much fun as possible.