How is parenting a toddler like effecting behaviour change in a population?

You want to take advice from us? Really?

Oooo, what is that you say? Is it guest post day? Well, yes it is and a cracker it is too… Today our guest poster tackles behavioural insight (through the eyes of a toddler). If you came here via twitter then our nudge to get you to read it obviously worked!

If you too would like to submit a piece please drop us a line at but not before you’ve read this:

We love our trends in Local Government, our bright new shiny ideas that haven’t been tried anywhere else before and would be perfect for our area: I am sure that you can insert your own favourite one here.  The current one is behaviour change and nudging, inspired by Thaler and Sunstein’s book but also taking on board the work of Robert Cialdini.

There has been a tremendous amount of effort put into nudging, with the Behavioural Insight Team in the Cabinet Office evidence of the Government’s commitment to it.  The recent House of Lords Science and Technology Committee report into this area is a welcome heavyweight analysis of what has at times been quite an ephemeral debate.  But is this something that affects many people outside of policy wonks and researchers?

In an attempt to gauge wider opinion, and sadly lacking a ticket for the Clapham Omnibus, I asked Mrs Guest Blogger for her thoughts on the subject.  When I explained the subtleties and nuances, her first reaction was “is that all?” which is fair enough, her second “is this an excuse not to spend money?” but her final thought on the matter was “isn’t that what parents of toddlers do?”, which got me thinking – how is parenting a toddler like effecting behaviour change in a population?

Firstly, there is an important element about presenting choices with consequences: no decision we make is consequence free so stating what they are is important.  This may present itself in the “if you do this ..” conversation with an overexcited toddler, which is valid, but it does show an element of wider behaviour change.

As an example, the more recent drink drive adverts have been much stronger and focused on “if you drink and drive, you may ruin your life and the lives of others”, which is quite a change from those of my childhood.  Similarly, the warnings on cigarette packets have changed from “this could possibly have an impact on your health” to “smoking kills”.

Understanding the consequences of our choices is important, as well as changing the way in which we ask the question.

Secondly, the environment in which we make our choices determines the choices that we make.  Trying to distract a toddler from the havoc they are about to wreak by showing them a cuddly toy, a favourite game or perhaps best of all a dog.  They sometimes decide to change what they were about to do and will do something else instead.

Thaler and Sunstein call this choice archteciture, and talk about the order in which options are presented in a canteen determining the choices of healthy or fatty food.  Architects have known this for a long time and talk rather grandly about the psychology of the built environment.  What does this mean?  Well, steering people into choices without them seeing it could be thought of as manipulative but there are times when we might want to do this for the good of individuals and of society as a whole.

Thirdly, it takes effort to do this.  When I return to my toddler at the end of a challenging, fruitful and productive day in Local Government, my energy levels and ability to be creative are the strongest determinant on whether the time before bed is going to be good or not.  If I am energetic, positive, focused and creative, Master Guest Blogger tends to respond well and we have a fun time.

If I am tired, crabby, irritable and short tempered, well you can work out the rest.  It takes time, effort and energy to be creative, engaging and fun: it would be much easier just to issue instructions.

Within policy terms, just telling people what to do is the easiest thing in the world, but trying to persuade them to do something different, something they may not wish to do, something they may disagree with, can be difficult and require time and effort on a range of practitioners.  It is usually worth the effort but in the context of increasing demands and reduced budgets, this may be something that we choose not to do.

So what do we take from this?  The skills and track record that many people have which have propelled them to their positions may not be the skills and outlooks that the sector needs in the future.  Local Government is remarkably resilient, as are so many of the people within them, but there is a real and significant challenge to us all now.

Sir Michael Bichard recently suggested that in the future ‘good government needs people who understand commissioning, behavioural economics and design, and you’ll be hard pressed to find many of those people in Whitehall’: you could argue the same for Town Halls as well.  I am not suggesting a wholesale change to our recruitment policies, as HR colleagues might have something to say about this, but there may be some areas of expertise that we are missing in the workforce.

Parents of toddlers may have something to teach us all here, and if we get it right, perhaps we will get pudding as well.

Welovelocalgovernment is a blog written by UK local government officers. If you have a piece you’d like to submit or any comments you’d like to make please drop us a line at:

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2 Comments on “How is parenting a toddler like effecting behaviour change in a population?”

  1. Liz Says:

    Thanks for these thoughts – it’s interesting stuff. I agree that emphasising the consequences of actions is really important. I’m a primary school governor and a couple of years ago the school did a wholesale review of its behaviour policy – in partnership with the children. They’ve now changed all the behaviour/discipline related language they use in the school to focus on actions and their consequences. It’s completely consistent, all the children understand it and behviour has improved/changed no end!
    I’m completely with you on the point about changing behaviour taking time, energy and commitment too!

  2. […] How is parenting a toddler like effecting behaviour change in a population? Oooo, what is that you say? Is it guest post day? Well, yes it is and a cracker it is too… Today our guest poster tackles behavioural insight (through the eyes of a toddler). If you came here via… Source: […]

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