Please, not that same book/game/song again! I can recite it in my sleep!


Okay, here's my first blogging challenge. I cannot get the author to change from Bella to Tracy. The post below is by me – Tracy. Anyone want to pitch in and help me get this sorted out? You can't say I did not warn you.

Every parent has heard the repeated request “Again!” to read
a favourite book, play a favourite game or sing a favourite song at one time or
another from their young child. How is it, we all wonder, that they can not
only stand, but insist upon, this incessant repetition when most parents are
driven to distraction by it? Turns out, as you’ve no doubt guessed by now, that
some of the answer lies in what we know about the developing brain.

Children may like repetition, in part, because they have
trouble stopping it. Cognitive and neuro- scientists talk about a phenomenon
known as perseveration, or the
uncontrollable repetition of a particular
response such as a word or a behaviour. Although perseveration is often
associated with some type of brain trauma in later life (injury, serious
illness etc.), it is also characteristic of the developing brain, especially in
the preschool years. In fact, an important achievement of early childhood is
being able to control, or inhibit, your own behaviour (think: Simon Says).

Developmental psychologists have devised
several tasks for use with young children that provide a glimpse into their
developing capacity for inhibition. In one task, children are shown cards with say,
red and blue flowers and cars. They are asked to sort the cards into two piles,
either according to colour (red here, blue there), or according to shape
(flowers here, cars there). After several sorting trials, children are asked to
switch to sorting to the other dimension (so if they first sorted by colour,
now they have to sort by shape – BTW, it doesn’t matter which one you ask them
to do first). The results of numerous studies show that until about 4 years of
age, children continue to sort the cards according to the first dimension or
the first set of rules. In other words, they PERSEVERATE! What’s striking is
that younger children will perseverate with the first set of rules even when
they are reminded of the new sorting rules and even when they can produce the
new rules every time they are about to sort a card! The argument goes that the
young brain is not yet able to control itself, or to INHIBIT the first
behaviour (sort by the first set of rules) and switch to new a new behaviour
(use the other set of rules).

 Just in case you’re thinking that we have it
all licked by the time we’re 5, think again. It turns out that inhibition takes
some time to develop. And though it becomes easier and easier with age it still
requires effort. So you can inhibit answering that cell phone when you are
driving the car (especially if that might cost you a fine), but if you have a
lot on your mind or get distracted, the effort it takes to inhibit just might
be too much for the already taxed brain and you may find yourself reaching for
it. Sorry officer, it was a failure to inhibit.

The take home message? It’s actually harder TO
STOP doing things than it is to DO them, especially for the really young. So
what does this mean for parenting? Let me give you a couple of things to think
about. My son is 5 and I’m still relying on some of them (it takes time

Since it’s harder to curb behaviour, try to
provide instructions that emphasize what TO DO as
opposed to what NOT TO DO. So easy on the use of “No”, “Don’t” and “Stop”,
especially at the start of a sentence. E.g. When your little one seems bent on
pressing the power button on your computer on and off (I can hear the hard
drive crying now, or is that you crying…), instead of “No! Stop pressing that
button.” try “Look it’s like the buttons your toy laptop computer/cash
register/cell phone etc. See? Now you try.”. Or instead of insisting “Don’t
throw your coat on the floor” when you come in the door try, “Can you put your
coat on your special hook?”.

2.  2. Even when children know the rule or what they
should do, keep in mind that it is still very hard to stop a habitual behaviour
and in a sense, redirect the brain toward acting according to some other
knowledge. So try not to see the repetitive behaviour (e.g. always throwing his
or her coat down every time he or she comes in the door) as defiant. Be
patient. Repeat the rule. Eventually he or she will get it. No really, they
will. And you’ll probably have a better relationship that if you just persisted
with the “No!”s.

As for the pleas for “Again!” in very young
children, it could just be that repeating the same thing again and again feels
good. It’s as though it’s the brain’s natural inclination. It’s what it wants
to do. Keep that in mind the next time you feel lured into the “Wheels On the

11 thoughts on “Please, not that same book/game/song again! I can recite it in my sleep!

  1. Hi Tracy – it’s Meredith here (Chaosgirl).
    FANTASTIC post!! And so timely. We’re solidly in the terrible twos and being reminded of the benefits of redirecting behaviour.
    What’s your take on using time-outs to stop unwanted behaviours at age 2? (e.g., time out for hitting/shoving)

  2. Wow that’s so interesting. Great start Tracy!
    So it must be especially hard for 2.5 year olds who are going thru a testing of the rules stage and are too young to inhibit certain types of behaviour. Will keep what you said in mind next time my 2.5 year old seems particularly defiant.
    Oh, fantastic to know how difficult it is for adults to inhibit certain behaviour when under stress/taxed. It pisses my husband off no end how I become so scatterbrained and disorganised when the kids are sick or crying. He just can not understand it. Of course he never does, but he isn’t the one sick kids come crying to.

  3. Hey Meredith! Take your vitamins… in my experience 3 to 3.5 and again 4 to 4.5 presented some unique challenges. The two’s are are just your entree into the challenges (not that there have been none to date).
    Of course I have opinion on parenting, but I”m going to bat this one over to Is who has a better handle on the evidence here.

  4. @Chaosgirl/Meredith: Here’s my take very quickly. Your question is definitely worthy of a whole post though, with studies linked and such. But for now: I think time-outs, the way the general public uses the term, is best used for kids 4 and older. The general idea is to pull the child away from an emotionally-arousing situation and ask them to think about the situation and do it differently next time. No 2 year old has that capacity for reflection (actually, true reflection only comes online at around 5 years old). And no 2 year old will learn appropriate behaviour through this method unless they find being alone so aversive that it’s a harsh punishment that they try to avoid. But even if that’s the case, I still don’t think you’re getting your real goal met: teaching your child to NOT hit or push or scratch when he’s trying to get something (or avoid something). To teach him those things, you need him to be listening, attending, and motivated to learn. That means NOT melting down. So… I DO think that a variation of time-out is ok in the hitting situation. I would remove the child away from the person he hit. Be firm but as unemotional as you can muster, sit him down WITH YOU (in other words, don’t leave him alone to escalate and potentially be frightened), tell him in VERY simple terms what his offense was (no hitting EVER, no biting, no scratching). Tell him you’ll wait with him until he calms down. And then, later, ask him to practice (as many times as you can persuade him to) the skill you DO want him to learn. So, bring him back to the situation and say “Now ask nicely like this: Please give ball.” And do it over and over, almost like a game. Praise the hell out of him when he does it right. We’re building neural pathways here: he needs lots and lots of practice with appropriate behaviour in similar situations that usually trigger his hitting. I KNOW, I KNOW, this is SO easy for me to say. But maybe if you have a plan of action that feels like it has a rationale then the whole chaos feel a bit more manageable at the time.
    Alternatively, something that worked wonders for me: give YOURSELF a time-out when you’re so frustrated you don’t know what to do with his repeated aggression. Come back clear-headed and try again. During your son’s age, I used this MANY times for myself to try to avoid escalating the problem with my own yelling and anger.
    @paola: are we married to the same man? My sick kids come crying only to me too and it can indeed be so overwhelming that inevitably I become a cranky, irritable mess. Go figure!

  5. thank you for the post! I can already tell I am going to love this new direction you are taking the blog!
    thank goodness for time-outs … for me that is!! Time to gather my patience and compassion for my almost 3 year old son!! Especially with a new 11-week old little girl! Lots and lots of “practicing” how to be nice & gentle after taking a swing at his sister …. and lots of reading the book “Hands are Not for Hitting!!”
    FYI, although I don’t comment everyday – I read your blog everyday and look forward to more of the wonderful topics you are addressing!!

  6. This is exactly what I have been thinking about lately with my 2.5 year old who is a new big brother. It’s like he just can’t help but act up with the baby now and then, and I *know* that, but it helps to have a word/explanation for it. This post is going to help me be more gentle with him. I really like the idea of practicing the desired behavior. Thanks!
    If you’re looking for questions for new topics, maybe something on fear? My 2.5 year old is going through a big “I’m scared” phase. Some of it seems Halloween related (wanting to see the displays, saying he’s scared and wants to leave, talking for five minutes about how he was scared, asking to go see it again. Repeat.) but he’s also suddenly saying he’s scared of the kids at the playground, going down the slide, etc. and talking about scary dreams, which seems to go beyond just the holiday too.

  7. I just wanted to say thanks for the great post since I didn’t comment on it the first time I read it. I’ve re-read this post about 5 times now and it’s just so helpful.

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