Your Psychology Is Not Far Off From That Of A Toddler

Living with a two year old is an excellent window into the nature of human psychology. There are several principles of toddlerhood that stick with us for life.

Toddler Lesson #1:  "Don't forget to put your pants on before you leave the house." Daily habits and routines are the foundation for creating lifelong positive behaviors. 

About 45% of our behavior is repeated on a daily basis (see Neal, Wood and Quinn).  Much of our lives are constructed by positive (teeth brushing and meditation) and negative (self critical thinking and numbing out with food) habits. We will never "arrive" at our valued selves, but rather, taking daily action that is in line with our values creates a meaningful life. If I value physical health, spiritual connection, and authentic friendship I can create daily habits that support these values.

Toddler Lesson #2: If you tell a toddler, "Whatever you do, don't touch your brother's favorite, really cool looking Lego cargo plane"  he/she won't be able to resist it. Trying to pre-empt a toddler by telling him/her not do to something is a guarentee they will want to do it more. 

As I have mentioned in earlier posts, thought and emotion suppression tend to backfire. Telling ourselves not to think about or feel something activates an unconscious monitoring process that will paradoxically carry on looking for the thing we were actively trying to suppress (see Wagner's Ironic Processing Theory). Instead of trying to ignore my longing for coffee at 4:00pm, it is more effective to accept these urges and allow them to crest and fall like a wave. 

Toddler Lesson #3: Telling your toddler, "If you don't stop crying, I'll give you something to cry about" is deeply damaging. Criticizing or shaming a toddler is more likely to worsen their behavior, or worse, create a pattern of new unwanted behavior you hadn't planned on.

More often than not, we speak to ourselves in ways that if we heard a parent talking to their kid in that same way would prompt us to call Child Protective Services. "You will never find love...Your thighs are disgusting...Whenever you talk you embarrass yourself...People think you are stupid." We know these would be ineffective and harmful things to say to a child, but somehow we think it will motivate ourselves to change.

Toddler Lesson #4: "Snack time, play time, nap time, story time, then early to bed" are a recipe for success. Tending to a toddler's basic needs in a consistent, reliable way allows them to grow and flourish. Getting too stimulated, tired, or hungry taxes the toddler's frontal lobe to the point where they can no longer regulate their emotions or behavior effectively. 

Willpower is a limited resource. It is like a muscle that can be exhausted overtime (see research by Roy Bauminster). With each decision we make, our self-control resources deplete. When our fuel stores are low (food, sleep, etc), so is our ability to resist surfing the internet when we should be working, bite our tounge when annyoed by a co-worker, or not yell at our kids when they are fighting.  BJ Fogg, a professor at Stanford University calls this the  "motivation wave." We would all benefit from tending to our body's circadian rhythms in the way we do to young children's.

Toddler Lesson #5:  "You can't have a candy in the grocery store...Ok, if you stop crying I'll get you a candy" increases the chance your toddler will cry for candy next time you are at the store.  

According to principles of operant conditioning, the most effective way to increase a new behavior is to provide a reward whenever it occurs (e.g., stop at your favorite coffee shop after your morning workout). Consistent reinforcement will produce reliable behavior change. The most effective way to decrease an unwanted behavior (put on extinction) is to remove reinforcers (e.g., do not stop at your favorite coffee shop if haven't worked out). However, behaviors that are intermittently reinforced (given a reward every once in a while) are the most difficult to place on extinction. Intermittent reinforcement will produce behavior that is near impossible to change.

When we get back to the basics of behavioral psychology, we can learn a lot about how to shape our lives in the direction we want them to grow.