Toddler Democracy

The Montreal Gazette reports on new research done by my friend and McGill political scientist Dietlind Stolle:

First, daycare kids were given clickers and asked to vote which sticker they liked best, one of an ice cream cone or a soccer ball. Because this was a democracy, and ice cream had trounced soccer, everyone got a sticker with an ice cream cone on it. But what would have happened if this wasn’t a democracy? “They voted again for a sticker, but instead they got nap time,” said Stolle. “They were puzzled, and one girl said right away, ‘I want democracy.’ Then all the others joined in. It was fantastic as an experience.”

After learning about democracy, they got to vote:

In a second round, the kids had to choose between Victoria, a candidate who promised them vegetables and a healthy lifestyle, and Sarah, who promised an endless whirl of lollipops, television and playtime. The health buff squeaked to victory with 54 per cent of the vote. “Originally, everyone was convinced the kids would choose the candidate who offered lollipops,” said Stolle. But when the children were asked afterward why they chose vegetables over candy, they said they preferred to “grow up,” what Stolle sees as indirect proof that citizens can be educated to choose what’s best for them.

And finally, they got to pick real candidates:

Finally, the students were shown pictures of Conservative leader Stephen Harper, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff and New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton. “I had to reduce the number of candidates because clicker voting is not so easy for kids of that age,” Stolle explains. In the pictures, each of the candidates is smiling and doing something that ought to appeal to children. “Steve” was cuddling an orange cat, “Iggy” was holding a platter of hotdogs and “Jack” was carrying a giant pumpkin. “I was certain they would chose the cat.” Three out of four would-be voters under the age of 6 chose Ignatieff, with one in four picking Harper and no votes for Layton. If the daycare set had its way, Layton wouldn’t even qualify for the next televised debate. Then a student talked to the children about each of the leader’s daycare policies. The children were shown neutral pictures of the leaders and asked to vote again. “We cannot know for sure whether the hotdog effect was lingering, or whether this was a reaction to the policies. But kids listened, and some obviously changed their vote. Ignatieff won again,” although with a slight drop in support.

I guess this is what you get when your parent is a political scientist and asked to explain what she does for a living. Very cool.

18 Responses to Toddler Democracy

  1. Joel April 12, 2011 at 1:19 pm #

    Very neat. Too bad they were taught this, though:

    “Because this was a democracy, and ice cream had trounced soccer, everyone got a sticker with an ice cream cone on it.”

    John Stuart Mill would want the kids who voted for soccer to get a soccer sticker anyway. Or at least some more discussion first.

  2. Dietlind Stolle April 12, 2011 at 1:27 pm #

    Thats a good point and the students and I were going back and forth on it. In a majoritarian system (as in Canada) though, this is what happens and most closely resembles political reality. And yes that was discussed with the kids. Though because they were kids, they got soccer stickers and lollipops anyway after he event. I hope this is somewhat in the sense of Mill.

  3. Erik Voeten April 12, 2011 at 2:00 pm #

    Joel: that is what Mill would want but what majoritarianism can’t deliver. I love the “Ralph’s pretty good grocery store” lesson here: at least an ice cream sticker is better than nap time, even if you prefer soccer.

  4. MH April 12, 2011 at 2:35 pm #

    J. S. Mill loved the puffy kind of stickers. With ponies.

  5. Joel April 12, 2011 at 3:10 pm #

    Wow, Professor Stolle. Impressive, indeed. Many adults could benefit from that lesson.

  6. Paul g April 12, 2011 at 10:19 pm #

    I don’t know, my first reaction is that I’m glad US tax dollars didn’t pay for this. Did they “learn about democracy” or did they learn that “democracy is a word that means I get a sticker”? Toddlers picked Ignatieff which tells us what about politics or elections or political behavior? How do the researchers know what “ought to appeal to children”?

  7. Sebastian April 12, 2011 at 11:41 pm #

    Dietlind – what a great idea for a class!
    I’d be curious if you think this was solely a pedagogical exercise (I suspect even more for the students than for the kids) or can we learn something about democracy, democratic learning, children’s democratic attitude etc. (probably some of the things would have to be formalized a bit more for a publishable study – but given that)

    Paul – not just did this hardly cost anything, it was also part of a class. Designing experiments, coming up with ways to talk to tots about democracy – you really think that the students didn’t learn anything? Also – I know it’s hard to understand, but reducing every issue to “MY TAXES SHOULDN’T HAVE TO PAY FOR THIS” isn’t considered an argument outside of the Ayn Rand book club. It’s considered a broken record.

  8. BelgianBrain April 13, 2011 at 5:30 am #

    Stolle sees indirect proof that citizens can be educated to choose what’s best for them…

    Also, citizens can be ‘educated’ to choose the exact opposite… And if that doesn’t work, there’s always coercion.

  9. Instructor 10 April 13, 2011 at 9:55 am #

    I am in a weekly argument with colleagues about the value and usefulness of Monkeycage to the discipline of political science. I am the big fan. Posts like this make my position very difficult to maintain. Still a big fan, but you guys are not helping me out with silly stuff like this. Surely there is other ‘entertaining’ and ‘cute’ research out there that is a bit more…rigorous? important? well-thought out? I was going to just keep my mouth shut and move on, but it’s important that you get some other feedback besides the positive comments here so far.

  10. Not Dietlind April 13, 2011 at 11:02 am #

    I read the Montreal Gazette article and I think Erik’s first sentence is misleading. From reading the article I got the impression that this was Career Day at the daycare and, maybe, a fun thing to do for the last class, NOT “an experiment” and certainly not Stolle’s research.

  11. John Sides April 13, 2011 at 11:23 am #

    Instructor 10: I’m glad that you’re a fan. I hope your colleagues become fans. But still I will defend this post. I think given the general seriousness of the blog, an occasional post about toddlers is fine. It is, for example, the only “silly” thing of the 30 or so posts on the blog’s front page right now.

  12. Sebastian April 13, 2011 at 2:45 pm #

    there used to be an ongoing series on cakes on this blog… if you’re concerned about polisci’s public image, I think showing a sense of humor isn’t the worst possible idea.

    I really do want to emphasize, though, that this is more about teaching than about research (i.e. more P&S and less Perspectives – ‘Not Dietlind’ is right that the lead-in is unfortunate) – I’d think it’d be of great interest to an “Instructor.”

  13. Erik Voeten April 13, 2011 at 4:14 pm #

    Apologies for the misleading first line. It actually didn’t occur to me that people would take the “research” term that seriously. As for silliness: this blog was conceived in the spirit of Lee Sigelman who has always stressed the light aspects of political science with the more serious ones. Indeed one of the last things he told me was that he was worried the blog was getting too serious.

  14. Dietlind Stolle April 13, 2011 at 5:57 pm #

    This is not research-related, but could contribute to a (even serious) discussion about how to teach political science more creatively. Students as well as kids learned and enjoyed themselves–there was lots of enthusiasm in the room on both sides–what else can one want?

    While indeed at fist kids thought that democracy is about getting stickers; they slowly understood in the deliberations that it is about getting what the majority wants more generally. Students had to think hard about how to explain this in the best way to the kids.

    Anyway, back to research for me. But I would repeat this experience in my classes…

  15. Instructor 10 April 13, 2011 at 8:32 pm #

    Yes, I am a downer. I suppose my point was not that this site should always strive to be serious, but that there is line, right? I mean you wouldn’t post stuff about Charlie Sheen for example? Or gay cavemen? I was just pissy because I lost this round this week (3 snarky emails this morning linking to this story!). If I ever get too bothered by this I should just go start my own serious site and see who shows up to read it (and post snarky comments).

  16. John Sides April 13, 2011 at 8:46 pm #

    Instructor 10: Charlie Sheen, eh? Don’t tempt me!

    Seriously, most of the feedback I get from political scientists about The Monkey Cage is positive. I’m curious as to why some of your colleagues disagree.

  17. Instructor 10 April 15, 2011 at 10:02 am #

    To be brief (and I don’t know if you will actually see this response now), they want a strict published-research approach to today’s events, and less infotainment approach that will sometimes make an appearance here. My argument has always been that no one will read those kinds of serious blogs, and the discipline will continue to stay out of the public realm. They claim that this infotainment approach lowers the quality of the posts and discussion on the blog to the point of irrelevance to the discipline, but I disagree. The further ‘silly’ or cute a post is, the more emails I get as they cherry-pick evidence. So maybe it’s not as interesting a debate as you might have expected.


  1. Toddler Democracy « Let A Thousand Nations Bloom - December 27, 2011

    […] came across this in a best of list. It’s an old Money Cage¬†post on some research from Dietlind Stolle: First, daycare kids were given clickers and asked to vote […]