Last year’s season of Sesame Street was a rough one for Cookie Monster.
For its 44th year, the show dedicated itself to teaching its young viewers about executive functioning, an umbrella term for cognitive skills like attention to detail, strategizing, and other mental processes that connect past experiences to present decision-making—including self-control, an idea easily demonstrated by making a junk-food junkie wait for his sugar fix.
And wait he did. In a recurring segment called “Cookie’s Crumby Pictures,” the show’s writers spoofed the plots of made-for-adult movies to create sketches with names like “The Hungry Games” and “The Spy Who Loved Cookies,” each featuring some outlandish reason why the chronically hungry Muppet had to hold on before chowing down.
The target audience of Sesame Street skews toward preschoolers—the show is geared toward kids between the ages of three and five—but new research suggests that children may have a handle on executive functioning, including the concept of self-control, much earlier than previously thought.
In a study of 150 15-month-olds recently published in the journal Cognitive Development, babies watched as an adult demonstrated how to use different noise-making toys, like a box with a buzzer and a set of plastic beads that could be dropped into a cup. The demonstration was then repeated as a second adult (referred to in the study as “the emoter”) came in the room and angrily berated the first one for making too much noise. Afterwards, the babies had a chance to play with the toys; in half of the cases, the angry adult either left the room or turned away from the babies, and in the other half stood facing them with a neutral expression.