Thoughtful Parenting: Do you know what I know?
Any proficient mind readers out there? Probably not. Oddly enough, our brains are equipped to perceive what the beliefs, actions and words of others mean. That’s due, in part, to the fact that we are wired to keep ourselves safe. By understanding other humans and events, we can predict what might happen and keep ourselves out of harm’s way. This kind of understanding includes knowing that people have their own mental states, including thoughts, wants, feelings and motives, which may differ from our own.
What about children? When are they able to know that others think differently than they do and have different preferences, wants and needs?
Infants learn that when they cry or smile, a caring adult will respond to them. Crawlers and toddlers know that, if they touch something that’s a no-no, they will be told to not touch. How better to get adult attention?
Research with 2-year-olds has shown they know the difference between a block and a car, but will pretend the block is a car, indicating they are aware of the difference between thoughts about an object and the object itself.
A surge in developing the ability to understand another’s thoughts occurs when youngsters realize people will feel happy when they get what they want and that there’s a difference between what they want and what others might want. Mastery of language helps this process. About the same age, children are able to talk about what they and others want, like and feel. At age 3, they are able to express what they think others think and know.
Children’s understanding of others’ thought processes advances at around age 4, when they learn that people talk and act on the basis of the way they think the world is, even when those thoughts don’t reflect the real situation. What this means is that kindergartners know when someone is being tricked.
How does all this translate into how we deal with our beloved children? It reminds us that, over time, children develop the ability to form ideas regarding what others are thinking and intending. However, just like we adults, children are not mind readers.
A touching example of a child’s struggle with understanding her mom’s thoughts is given in the following event.
Judy, age 3: “Mommy, go out of the kitchen”.
Mom: “Why, Judy?”
Judy: “Because I want to take a cookie.”
Judy knows that if her mom is in the kitchen, she cannot get a cookie. What Judy does not know is what her mom understands about her request.
It is inappropriate to tease children before they’re old enough to understand what is real and what is make believe. Teasing confuses and distresses them. It is appropriate and helpful to children to remember that understanding the difference between real and unreal is developmental.
For many years, their perceptions of their environments differ from ours. Our primary job as parents is to keep our children physically and psychologically safe. Safety is assured by compassion and empathy, which includes affirming children’s perceptions as they reveal them to us.
Judy’s mom could have said, “Judy, you want a cookie. I have already said you couldn’t have one. Nice try to trick me!”
Chris Young, Ph.D., is a retired licensed psychologist specializing in children and families. For more information, visit mdyphd.com. Young can be reached at 970-291-9259.
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