Children's Voice July/August 2009

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The Down to Earth Dad

Children Store Information for Future Use

By Patrick Mitchell

Okay you two, make sure you go to the bathroom before we get in that car and head down the road. I don't want you to be asking me to stop 10 minutes from now," I told my preschool daughter and son. If you've traveled with young children (or if you remember your own childhood road trips), you can guess what happened: Just outside of town I turned into a grocery store parking lot, held two small hands, and walked inside the store to ask where the restrooms were.

Is your 5-year-old daughter disrespecting you by not using the bathroom before a trip, and then demanding that you stop just 10 minutes down the road? Probably not, says Yuko Munakata PhD, a professor of psychology and a researcher in the Institute of Cognitive Science at the University of Colorado– Boulder. Her research focuses on attempting to understand thinking and how it changes with development, problem-solving, and mental flexibility.

Is your 4-year-old son trying to be rude when he runs outside to play without his coat, even though you just reminded him to wear it? Actually, he heard exactly what you said about the coat, but instead of acting on the information right away, he stored it in his brain. It can be retrieved there later on when he'll actually need the information, such as when it gets cold enough for him to think about his coat.

"[Toddlers'] thinking is more past-oriented than future-oriented. When you give them the instruction to get their coat from their bedroom and they just go straight outside without the coat and it seems that they didn't hear you, they heard you, and they paid attention, but they can't use that information right away," says Munakata. "But if you remind them they have a coat in case they get cold, then when they become cold, they may remember, 'Oh, yeah, my jacket's in my bedroom and I can use it.'" Older children are better able to anticipate their future needs in a way more in line with adult thinking, Munakata notes, because they've been at the game longer. Only over time, after building a library of past experiences in their brain to call upon, do children move toward anticipating their future needs and actually planning for them.

"By the time a child is 8 years old, they are quite good at anticipating, and preparing for, the future. But as toddlers they have to have an immediate use for something in order to use it," Munakata explains. "The best thing is to encourage children to retrieve information when they need it. Three-and-a-half-year-olds are not planning for the future, but 8-year-olds are planning for the future."

Her advice for parents and educators is this: "Don't overreact if you feel ignored. Be patient with your kids. When it seems like they're not listening to you, or they're trying to just willfully disobey or ignore you, that's probably not what they're doing. Or there's more to it than that; they just don't take the information and use it the way you expect them to," she says. "You are having an impact; but it's just in a different way than you would expect. It might be a few years before the kids are old enough for your impact to take the form that you expected, but your kids are hearing you."
A regular contributor to Children's Voice, Patrick Mitchell publishes a monthly newsletter, The Down to Earth Dad, and facilitates the National Dads Matter! TM Project for child- and family-serving organizations. He provides keynote addresses and trainings, and conducts Family Storytelling Night TM events for programs and schools. To reserve Patrick Mitchell for speaking engagements, or to implement the National Dads Matter! TM Project for your families and community partners, call him toll-free at 877-282-DADS, or e-mail him at

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