Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Change of Mind

There is an experiment they do with young children*. The experimenter shows a closed Sweeties** box to the child and asks what is in it. The child answers, "Sweeties." Then the experimenter shows the child that the box is full of paper clips and asks the child, "Before we opened the box, what did you think was in it?" And the young child answers, "Paper clips." People used to think that answers like this meant the child was lying. However, that is not the case. Up to about three or four (I wish I could remember this more exactly), a child is not able to think about thinking. Which means the child can't think about having been wrong about what she thought. So, she honestly can't remember thinking that there were Sweeties in that box, since now she knows that there are paper clips. You get the same answer for the same reason if you ask the child what someone else will think is in the box. Again, if the child still thinks it is Sweeties, that's the answer you get. If the child knows it is paper clips, that is the answer you get.

When the child knows that she used to think there were Sweeties in that box and now she knows better, she has made a major leap in type of thought.

A similar change in thinking ability happens when the child "looked me right in the face and defied me!" We've all been there. Dad is out weeding the garden and the toddler decides to help. Everything is fine until the toddler reaches for a tulip and Dad says, "No! That's a flower. Don't pull the flowers!" And the toddler looks right in his face and pulls it. Again, what is happening is not what people think is happening. To understand this, we need to put it in sequence.

Step one, the baby is eating candy and offers some to Mama, who says she would rather have a carrot, and Baby gives her candy. Because Baby doesn't understand that people can want different things, and Baby wants candy, so Mama must want candy. Step three is, Baby offers candy, Mama says she'd rather have a carrot, and Baby gives her a carrot. Now Baby knows people can want different things. That "defiant" moment where he looks right in your face and does the thing you told him not to? That's the moment he figured it out. He is watching your face to see if his hypothesis is right and you really don't want him to pull that tulip (pick up the cat by the tail, bite his brother). This is a major developmental milestone. Baby should have a party to celebrate this incredible step he has taken. And, usually, he gets punished for defiance.

* I was going to give you the exact age, but I looked for it on the Internet for 45 minutes and couldn't find it.
** A brand of candy in the UK.
Picture copyright Notcot Inc.


Tabor said...

I see this everyday in my grandson who is two and 8 months. Watching his mind work is fascinating!

Morganx said...

Thank you for posting this. It clarifies something I've never quite understood about small children and will help me be more patient if I'm ever a parent.

I love your blog and read it regularly.