Want Your Toddler To Like You? Then Back Away Slowly, Please, as a New Study Cautions Against Intrusive Play.

Mom pop quiz: Your 2-year-old is busying herself at her little play stove when you notice she happily puts a bunch of plastic grapes directly onto one of the burners. You should:

A.    Remove it, explaining that grapes don’t get cooked—and if they did, they would belong in a pot.
B.    Admonish her for not playing with the stove correctly and suggesting she sit while you read a book to her instead.
C.    Say, “Yum yum! Grapes for dinner!” and pass her a plate to put it on.

The best answer, according to the results of a new study that control-freak-shames moms everywhere, would be C.

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“Humans seem to have a real need to feel autonomous—that they can make choices and decisions, and this need is there from infancy,” lead study author Jean Ispa, a professor of human development and family studies at the University of Missouri, told Yahoo! Shine. The study, which observed the directive, or bossy, tendencies of more than 2,200 moms who were playing with their tots, found that those who over-interfered pushed kids to feel less warmth and intimacy towards them.

“When parents don’t let children control the content and pace even of play, children may view this as meaning that the parent doesn’t think they have good ideas, or are incapable of doing things correctly,” Ispa explained. “So it is a blow to their confidence in their own competence.”

For the study, published in the first 2013 issue of the quarterly Parenting: Science and Practice, researchers observed prerecorded videos of the mother-child pairs, part of a federal study of the Early Head Start program for low-income families. The recordings were made when the children were 1, 2, 3 and 5 years old, and researchers looked not only at kids’ reactions to moms, but for differences in mothers’ behaviors based on race. While European-American moms were the least directive, African-American mothers were the most, and Mexican-American mothers backed off the most once their child was older than 1.

“It’s common to find that African American parents are more directive than European American parents,” Ispa said. “Respect for elders tends to be more valued by African American parents than by European American parents, and that is a possible reason.” With Latin-American moms, she added, many are extremely close to their infants, doing things for them that may look directive, but then backing off when they begin to grow. “Latino parents tend to believe that, when children get to be toddlers and preschoolers, their primary need is for loving acceptance, and so teaching them skills is less important at these ages.” 

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In general, the researcher explained, moms tend to intrude on their toddlers’ playtime for a few reasons—because they’re stressed or depressed, believe that kids need to be taught how to play, or, for particularly those living in poverty, “because of their own experiences holding jobs that require them to obey strict rules rather than to be creative.”

So does that mean you should just shrug and smile when your 3-year-old shoves her Play-Doh into a Bristle Block and is then freaked out because she can’t get it out? Not at all, says Ipsa.

“Some directiveness is clearly appropriate,” she said. “There is a concept called ‘scaffolding,’ which involves noticing when a child could really use help and then suggesting just enough of a next step to help the child move forward. It’s not about forcing the child to play a certain way; it’s about seeing when some guidance would help the child move ahead, and then stepping back.”

Or cleaning up a mess, as the case may be.

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