Even Toddlers Know When Moms Are Too Controlling

Want to boost your chances of having a great rapport with your kid now and for years to come?

Give your toddler a shot at independence.

Let her play (safely) on her own terms, with her own toys, the way she wants to play with them. Encourage her to explore, experiment, and figure out how stuff works by trial and error.

Sound advice? At least that’s what social scientists at the University of Missouri suggest.

Relaxed Mothers Score More Points with Toddlers

In research published online in the journal Social Development, MU investigators said moms who gave kids more freedom to play at age two were viewed more positively by their children during playtime than were moms who interfered in their toddlers’ play choices.

Here’s what we know about the University of Missouri study:

Scientists designed their investigation to explore how intrusion into a toddler’s play impacts a child’s behavior—and the overall quality of the mother-child relationship.

To start, investigators visited the homes of the study participants. Prior to their visit, researchers gathered a number of toys for the toddlers to play with. They told the mothers to give the toys to their kids in a particular order, but beyond that they added no other instructions.

Moms and children sat on a mat during the play episode. Mothers were free to play (or work) with their toddlers or they could simply watch.

Mothers were rated on a scale of one to seven, based on how intrusive they were while the researchers observed them. Laid-back moms let their tots play without interference, or offered support only when their kids seemed stumped or asked for help explicitly.

Intrusive moms were overly directive in their kids’ play, at times taking over by removing toys their children wanted to play with, refusing to give their kids toys they requested, and physically intervening to demonstrate how to play the right way with toys their children were already using.

Controlling Moms May Trigger Negative Behavior and Feelings

The problem with the latter approach is, of course, the blowback.

Toddlers with highly directive moms displayed the most negativity toward their mothers, and they communicated this by whining and resorting to other fussy behaviors to object to the interference.

When the original study kids entered fifth grade several years later, investigators interviewed them to see how these youngsters felt about their mothers. The offspring of the more controlling moms continued to exhibit more negativity—possibly, researchers said, because the moms continued the same behavior.

Clearly, to these children, that lack of autonomy is pretty much a deal breaker.

“Restriction of autonomy has been linked to low motivation to succeed, low self-control, and negativity in children,” said Dr. Jean Ispa, professor and co-chair of the UM Department of Human Development and Family Science.

“There is general agreement among researchers that regardless of age, children need to feel that their preferences are understood and respected,” Dr. Ispa added.

So moms, let your kids enjoy themselves. Let them play like toddlers without interference. You’ll all be happier.