Link copied to clipboard

Over the preschool years, children gradually develop the idea that other people think their own thoughts. This is called developing a “theory of mind” and it’s a key step in knowing right from wrong. For one thing, once a child understands that others have thoughts of their own, she can understand that others might cause things to happen on purpose or that things can happen just by accident.

One way researchers test for theory of mind is with this interesting experiment.

Two children are in a room. A researcher opens a box to show both children that the box contains candy. One of the children is then sent out of the room.

While the second child watches, the researcher empties the candy from the box and replaces it with pencils. He then asks the child, “When your friend comes back in the room, what will he think is in the box?”

The child who has developed a theory of mind will answer, “Candy.” This child can imagine that the first child still holds in mind the original contents of the box and doesn’t know that the candy has been replaced.

The child who hasn’t developed a theory of mind will answer, “Pencils.” This child knows that pencils are now in the box and can’t realize that the child who is out of the room doesn’t know about the switch.

Theory of mind usually develops sometime between ages four and seven.

This theory of mind affects how children view what happens to them. The ego-centered child who hasn’t developed a theory of mind believes that whatever you do you intended to do. If you accidentally bump into her, she believes you meant to do it and is naturally upset with you. This explains some of the outrage toddlers and young preschoolers express over accidents that seem to us not worth such a reaction.

The child who has developed a theory of mind understands that what you were thinking at the time you bumped into her matters. If you intended to hit her then she is justified in feeling upset. But if you hit her by accident then she realizes she was not treated unfairly.

Theory of mind gives us clues about children’s behavior too. Being able to tell right from wrong involves this ability to determine our own intentions and the intentions of others. People who have development theory of mind understand that accidents carry little moral weight. Unless we contributed to the accident by our negligence, things that happen by accident are not our fault. But if we intended a bad thing to happen to someone else, then it was our fault and we should feel guilty. Preschoolers understand this. They often bop someone over the head then claim it “was an accident.”

A theory of mind develops as a child’s brain develops and there’s not much you need to do to make it happen quicker. But once your child seems to understand that others can have purposes of their own, you can reinforce the moral difference between intentional acts and accidents. Be careful not to punish your child for what was clearly an accident. And point out to your young child that meaning to hurt someone makes the action punishable.

Intention counts.
© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.