What Do Children Think? How Can Parents Help?

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Three and even two-year-olds use the word “think.” But we have to consider carefully what the child means when he uses the words “think” or “know.” At first around age three, to think is just to suggest uncertainty. “I think this is a squirrel.” The child isn’t aware this idea comes from her mind. She could just as easily have said, “Maybe this is a squirrel.”

Only by age four do children use the word “think” to refer to something as coming from their mind—recognizing a thought is unseen. This is a new clever notion. Then they can even express the idea that what they think is different from what somebody else thinks. Another milestone.
Further, they can see that people construct the world in their mind even when this is a mis-representation of the way things really are. “Mommy moved the cookies from the drawer to the other cabinet, but I’m still going to check in the first drawer for them.” The child has trouble believing the cookies are no longer where they used to be. Only in grade school when that is fully understood can we help our children tackle misconceptions.

If parents are more explicit with what they ask, they can increase their young child’s abilities. For example if a three-year-old is helped by the parent who has moved an item from one place to another by asking where the item was “first.” The use of the word, first, clues the child into the change and reminds them of the shift from where the item may be now instead of clinging to their initial belief. Then the child can be reminded of what they thought was in the drawer in the beginning and then was moved elsewhere. As a parent you have given what’s called a contextual clue. You are teaching your child to think and believe in a new higher level way that they become capable of just because you used the word, “first.”

This may seem minor, but it is not in terms of your child’s cognitive and social development. In this way a parent is showing the child another point of view and clarifying the difference between appearance (where they first saw the item) and reality (where the item was moved to).

This is central to understanding other people’s points of view. Apparently, children learn about points of views or alternative perspectives about things at the same time as they do about people.
As children enter grade school these understandings are particularly important if they are to make good friends and get along with teachers and even learn maximally.

If you don’t know something yet, you need to tolerate the frustration of waiting to learn it which means first not knowing or believing something before hearing and accepting the teacher’s point of view. This is how we learn throughout our lives.

A parent can offer positive views of learning from teachers that will influence the child to enjoy learning for its own sake.

A parent can say, “Wasn’t it great to learn from the science experiment about gravity? First you didn’t know why the balloon went up in the sky when it was filled with air and then why it fell down when it popped. Then you learned the teacher’s point of view. Did you believe her at first? What convinced you? Your teacher is helping you learn what to believe and how to think! This is very exciting. Should we get a book on more science experiments? We can do them together.”

In this way as a parent you are not only encouraging discovery, learning, curiosity, and new points of view, but you are also making learning part of your relationship with your child, a wonderful reward.

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Laurie Hollman, Ph.D. is a psychoanalyst with a new book, Unlocking Parental Intelligence: Finding Meaning in Your Child’s Behavior, that can be found on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Familius and wherever books are sold.


Laurie Hollman, Ph.D. is a psychoanalyst and author who does psychotherapy with infants and parents, children, adolescents, and adults. Dr. Hollman's new book: Unlocking Parental Intelligence: Finding Meaning in Your Child's Behavior is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Familius.com. She writes about infant, child and adolescent development, mental health, Parental Intelligence, and a broad range of parenting topics.

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