Published: June 1, 2009

If you feel like everything you say to your toddler goes in one ear and out the other, don’t despair.

Toddlers aren’t ignoring advice. They are storing it for later, according to a new CU study. This goes against the notion that has long been accepted by scientists and many parents — that children’s brains function as if they were little adults.

Led by psychology professor Yuko Munakata, the researchers found toddlers neither plan for the future nor live completely in the present. Instead, they call up the past as they need it. Any parent who has tried, to no avail, to convince a 3-year-old to put on a jacket when it is snowing has faced this issue. Munakata’s research indicates that toddlers don’t think, “It’s cold outside. I better wear my jacket.” Instead, they go outside, feel cold and retrieve in their memory where their jacket is and go get it.

The researchers don’t claim to be parental experts, but their findings could aid parents in relationships with their toddlers. Their advice? Avoid repeating commands that require your toddler to anticipate the future.

“Don’t do something that requires them to plan ahead in their mind, but rather try to highlight the conflict that they are going to face,” Munakata says. “Perhaps you could say something like, ‘I know you don’t want to take your coat now, but when you’re standing in the yard shivering later, remember that you can get your coat from your bedroom.’ ”