WebMD Medical News
Louise Chang, MD
July 20, 2007 -- If your toddler's favorite word is "no!" and his
default position is defiance, relax. New research suggests that willful
behavior in very young children is both normal and a sign of a healthy
Based on controlled observations of mothers interacting with their 1- and
2-year-olds, researchers found that the children of mothers who had the most
positive parenting skills often also displayed the most defiance when asked not
to play with a particular toy or pick up toys after playtime.
Far from being abnormal or a reflection of poor parenting, defiant behavior
among very young children appears to be a positive development, says researcher
Theodore Dix, PhD, of the University of Texas at Austin.
The finding comes as welcome news to Birmingham, Ala., mom Hannah Wolfson,
whose son Alex is now 14 months old.
"There were instances really early on when we would say "no!"
and he would just smile and keep doing what he was doing," she tells WebMD.
"It's hard to tell how much he doesn't understand and how much he willfully
ignores, but there is definitely a lot of willfulness."
In an effort to better understand the reactions of young
children to parents' attempts to control and socialize them, Dix and colleagues
videotaped 119 toddlers between the ages of 14 and 27 months interacting with
The mothers were asked to have their children avoid a set of attractive toys
and -- when playtime was over -- to get their children to help them put away
the toys they had been allowed to use.
Based on the taped interactions, the researchers categorized the children's
behaviors as either being defiant, ignoring maternal requests, or being
willingly compliant with the requests.
The mothers' behavior toward their children during the playtime was also
observed, and the mothers were asked to complete questionnaires designed to
determine if they experienced symptoms of depression.
Being sensitive to their child's interests and supportive during playtime
were among the positive parenting traits recorded by the researchers.
Children of mothers with these traits and with few symptoms of depression
were most likely to be defiant and least likely to ignore their mothers
completely when a request was made.
In contrast, the children with mothers who reported symptoms of depression
were more likely than other children to ignore requests and less likely to
respond to requests with defiance.
Very young children of depressed moms may not completely trust their
mothers' reactions, and they may learn to be overly passive in the face of
challenges, the researchers suggest.
"These children may realize at a very early age that defiance isn't
going to get them what they want," researcher Elizabeth Gershoff, PhD,
tells WebMD. "We know that depressed moms are more likely to use harsh
punishments. They tend to have short fuses, and children may learn early on
that defiance might get them hit or yelled at."
Conversely, it may be true that active resistance by toddlers
who are fully engaged with their moms reflects a healthy confidence in their
ability to control events, say Dix and Gershoff.
"This is the age when kids are pushing boundaries and that is a good
thing," Gershoff says. "They are becoming their own person with their
own wants and desires and ideas about how to do things."
SOURCES: Dix, T. Child Development, July/August, 2007; online
edition. Theodore Dix, PhD, associate professor of human development and family
science, University of Texas at Austin. Elizabeth Gershoff, PhD, research
assistant professor, University of Michigan Center for Human Growth and
Development. Hannah Wolfson, Birmingham, Ala.
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