How Children Think About the Mind

One powerful way children learn is by attending to and interacting with people around them. Humans are social creatures, and babies and toddlers are especially attuned to social cues, such as their parents’ facial expressions and where their parents are looking. However, when it comes to learning about the internal social aspects of people, like their beliefs, desires and thoughts, young children often struggle to realize that other people may think differently than they do.

In psychology, “Theory of Mind” is a term used to describe the understanding of one’s own or others’ mind and how it influences behavior. Many scientists have focused their research on studying when babies and toddlers understand that people have cognitions, like thoughts and desires, and when they understand that those cognitions influence behavior. For example, in one study, 14-month-olds hear an adult express how much she likes broccoli and that she doesn’t like Goldfish crackers, but when given the option to give some food to the adult, the infant chooses to give what she herself wants (crackers) rather than what the adult wants (broccoli). The researchers suggest that it’s not until after 18-months of age that infants understand that someone may have different preferences than they do. This is probably why toddlers often give people gifts that they themselves like (like a stuffed animal or a favorite blanket), even though an adult would not necessarily like it.

Young children also don’t fully understand that adults have different beliefs than them, and that people can also hold incorrect beliefs. In one popular study, 3-year-olds are shown a Crayon box and are asked, “What do you think is inside this box?” Of course, children respond that Crayons are in the box. Then, the experimenter shows them that the box actually contains stickers or something else that is unexpected. The experimenter than asks the child two questions to measure their theory of mind: “What did you think was in the box when I asked you before?” and “If we ask your friend what’s in the box, what would he/she say?”

Surprisingly, children younger than 4-years-old typically answer both questions based on their current beliefs. They answer that they previous thought stickers were in the box, and that their friend would also think stickers are in the box. Importantly, these 3-year-olds are not lying. Instead, they struggle to understand that people may have false beliefs about the interior of the Crayon box, including that they themselves could have previously had a false belief. These children assume that other people hold the same beliefs as themselves.

Learning about the mind – both one’s own and others – is not an easy task. It’s important to remember that we adults have learned with time how to take someone’s perspective or entertain someone’s point of view, even if we don’t agree with it. For young children, the first step in understanding how other people think is recognizing that people do not prefer the same things as you, or even hold the same beliefs as you.

Don’t be surprised if your toddler gives you a not-so-thoughtful gift; they’re just assuming you’ll like their toys too!

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