Just how important is winning?

Just how important is winning?

How important is winning to a toddler? It seems that coming out ahead is very important to this age group; however, the way in which they win may be just as important as getting their needs met.

During experiments conducted at the University of California, Irvine, and published in Nature Human Behavior, toddlers viewed a few scenarios in which two puppets had conflicting wants. In the first scenario, the puppets were crossing a stage from opposite sides, met in the middle and stopped while facing each other, each refusing to move out of the way. Eventually one puppet bowed to the other and moved aside, showing deference.

Children were then asked which puppet they liked better. Twenty out of 23 toddlers picked the non-bowing, or higher status puppet. Dr. Stefanie Warning-Probst, a clinical psychologist specializing in developmental pediatrics at Advocate Children’s Hospital in Park Ridge, Ill., isn’t surprised by these findings because she says, by toddlerhood, children have had many opportunities to observe and participate in social interactions which all involve hierarchy to some degree.

“By attending to the body language of the puppet who bows, the child is able to understand that there may be something special or more likeable about the puppet who does not bow, making that puppet a better choice to play or associate with,” says Dr. Warning-Probst.

For the second half of the experiment, toddlers were shown puppets in a similar situation – meeting in the middle of the stage where neither puppet was willing to move. This time, though, one puppet pushed the other puppet down to be on its way. Even though this puppet won, it turns out toddlers don’t respond as positively to this behavior and method of winning. Only four of 22 participants liked the “winner” after this interaction.

It seems that toddlers view someone who forces a win less favorably, but how are toddlers able to distinguish between winning in a fair or unfair way? Dr. Warning-Probst says their reactions during the experiment aren’t necessarily due to a complex understanding of fairness, but the fact that, at this stage of development, they understand that behaviors have consequences.

“In toddlerhood, children become focused on ways to gain access to things they like – or rewards. Behaviors that the child associates with a negative consequence, such a knocking down another child or puppet, are unlikely to be associated with receiving a reward,” says Dr. Warning-Probst.  “Therefore, the child may be less likely to want to engage with a person or object that is unlikely to benefit them.”

Dr. Warning-Probst says the experiment is interesting because it attempts to explain how young children navigate and understand social hierarchies.

“I think this study confirms what many of us already know – children are highly attuned to their environments and, perhaps, more socially savvy than we give them credit for,” says Dr. Warning-Probst.

When attempting to understand young children’s behavior, Dr. Warning-Probst cautions caregivers to not assume that toddlers have an adult-like understanding of the world, particularly regarding fairness and decision making.

“Young children tend to be highly egocentric and focused on getting their own needs met, both of which are expected and highly appropriate for their developmental level,” says Dr. Warning-Probst. “Adults need to model fairness and use age-appropriate language to explain such concepts as right and wrong to young children.”

Related Posts


Subscribe to health enews newsletter

About the Author

Colette Harris
Colette Harris

Colette A. Harris, health enews contributor, is the public affairs and marketing coordinator at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Il. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism and has nearly a decade of experience writing about health and wellness, which are her passions. When she’s not writing, you can find her practicing yoga, cooking, reading, or traveling.