22 June 2018

Parents can help child to see incident as accident

Two pre-school children are building a tower of blocks. It is unclear what exactly happens, but the tower topples. Did one of the pre-schoolers deliberately knock down the tower, or was it an accident?

Pre-schoolers can interpret the cause in various ways, but it is certain that children who often think there is intent are more likely to react aggressively. Even when there is no actual intent involved. The Utrecht University-based developmental psychologist Anouk van Dijk concludes in the American magazine Child Development that parents are capable of adjusting their children's negative interpretations.

kinderen met blokken
Picture from picture book

Van Dijk and her colleagues' research consisted of two surveys. In the first survey, the parents looked at a picture book together with their children of 4, 5 or 6 years old. The researchers asked the parents to make up their own stories with the pictures. Van Dijk says: “For instance, one picture showed two children working on a block tower. On the next picture, the tower had collapsed.”


The researchers observed the parents and children, and measured the parents' explanation. “Parents usually gave a positive or negative explanation. In a negative explanation, a parent could say something like: ‘Look at that, that child knocked down the tower!’ In a positive explanation, the parent emphasizes that it is an accident, such as by saying: ‘Too bad, they worked well together, but the tower still fell over.’” Van Dijk concluded that there was a decrease of negative interpretations in children if the parents offered a more positive explanation.

You can teach children to see incidents in which it's not clear whether or not there was intent in a positive way.


So in that first survey, parents decided for themselves which explanations they would provide. In the second survey, the parents received an instruction from the researchers: one group was told to give their children positive explanations to the stories. The other group was not allowed to give any explanation: they could only describe the story. “This second survey showed that the children from that first group interpreted less negatively themselves. That means that parents can teach children to see incidents in which it's not clear whether or not there was intent in a positive way.”


Of course, the Utrecht-based researcher indicates that she does not intend to always see everything in a positive way. “No, there are some cases in which a pre-schooler actually does knock down a tower on purpose. Naturally, a pre-schooler can be corrected in such a case. But the point is that you, as a parent, can teach your child that by far not everything happens on purpose.”

For more information

Press Office Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences, phone number +31-30-253 4027, r.a.b.vanveen@uu.nl


If you want to tackle social problems, it would be best to start with children. The Utrecht-based research theme Dynamics of Youth invests in a resilient youth. Academics from all fields collaborate in order to learn to better understand child development. How can we help children and youngsters to grow and flourish in our rapidly changing society?