Should Toddlers be Held Responsible for their Actions?

After graduating with my philosophy degree in May, I have just begun a Master of Arts in Teaching Program and hope to continue to use this space to maintain a blog reflecting on the education process and my own growth as an educator. I’m adding a new Category to differentiate from the main primary ed. discussion starters and activity suggestions that make up the rest of the site. Starting today with a reflection on one of my program’s first course readings, Chapter Five of The Cultural Nature of Human Development by Barbara Rogoff. As always, I welcome comments below each post to encourage critical reflection and debate!

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One main idea from this text that struck me was Rogoff’s (2003) observations of how different cultures interpret infant and toddler awareness, autonomy, privilege, and responsibility. Rogoff first discusses the Guatemalan Mayan community of San Pedro, in which she writes that “infants and toddlers are accorded a unique social status” (p. 163). In this community, infants and toddlers are not seen as having an awareness of the morality of their actions, and are not thought to be capable of intentionally harming someone else. Thus, they are not seen as responsible for their actions. Contrast this with the U.S. perspective that children must be taught at younger and younger ages – even pre-lingual – to respect their family members and friends, and even to follow a complex set of rules and societal norms. Whereas the typical American two-year-old who grabs a toy from his older sibling would be scolded and most likely at least mildly punished, the Mayan child would not suffer consequences for his behaviour – in fact, the older child is expected to yield to the younger, even if the younger child becomes violent. Since the toddlers are not considered responsible for their actions, conventional “behaviour modification” techniques of European American cultures are irrelevant.

This interpretation of infant social status challenges my previously learned ideas about how young people learn consideration for others, gleaned from prior readings and from my own years of experience in educational and family contexts. The heavy emphasis on rules and punishment that some U.S. and European cultures embrace today seems extreme and ineffective to me. However, the Mayan practice that Rogoff describes as removing any awareness for toddlers of the consequences of their actions seems to be the other (just as negative) extreme. Is this not just as likely to create a chaotic home and learning environment? I wonder how we could cultivate a balance between the two: Letting children explore their surroundings without fear of irrelevant or violent punishment, while showing toddlers that we do have enough confidence in them to treat them as real, accountable members of the community. Children can learn very early on that their actions matter and have strong influence on their friends and family members. It can be empowering to know that they have the choice to impact their loved ones in a positive rather than negative way, and that even when they make mistakes, it is okay, and there is something they can do about it to make things better.

Rogoff observes that in Mayan culture, “allowing toddlers not to follow the rules is based on the idea that their will should be given respect like that of any other person” (165) [my emphasis]. This interpretation actually puzzles me, because in the Western cultural context I come from, “respect like that of any other person” includes perceived responsibility for one’s actions. This seems to go back to the “unique social status” accorded to infants and toddlers that Rogoff describes at the beginning of this section. It is almost as if infants are treated as more special and have a higher status by virtue of their perceived lower ability to understand and learn moral cues.

In How Children Succeed, Paul Tough discusses a study published in 2011 that followed over a thousand young New Zealanders over three decades, beginning with interviewees as young as three years old. The study “showed, in new detail, clear connections between childhood self-control and adult outcomes” (Tough 197). My own brief experience with New Zealand Year Ones (mostly five-year-olds) supported my intuitions coming from unschooling and free schooling in the USA: children can be given space to grow while still held responsible for the consequences of their actions. True, these examples come from children slightly older than Rogoff’s subjects, but the building blocks for such a relationship with children must be laid from the beginning. Giving clear boundaries and education about the consequences of one’s actions seems to support children’s growth into autonomous, conscientious members of society.

Some questions this text raises for me:

  1. How do my/our own family backgrounds influence my/our expectations of young children and my/our expectations of ourselves?
  2. How might we as educators utilize a blend of wisdoms/experience from the variety of cultural backgrounds our students come from to create a safer, more secure, and more effective learning environment?
  3. How do we cultivate a mindset among very young children of treating each other with respect etc. because of actually caring for each other, rather than for fear of punishment/disappointment from authority figures?

Rogoff, B. (2003). Developmental transitions in individuals’ roles in their communities. (pp.150­193). The Cultural Nature of Human Development. Oxford: Oxford University.