Children show annoying behavior as they learn to understand people
Photo: StarMama. Creative Commons.

Annoying behavior reflects children’s growing understanding of people

By Henry M. Wellman and , | December 2017 

Gradually, they gain insight into why people do what they do, which aids social life but can also lead to annoying behavior and create difficulties. Delays can affect cognitive development and social relationships and can leave children isolated.

The “Terrible Twos”, young children telling lies, teenagers’ heavy sarcasm – the list of different kinds of youthful behavior with which adults struggle is long. Other characteristics are more charming but sometimes mysterious – the way toddlers reveal themselves easily when playing hide and seek; the way young children thrill when shouting “He’s behind you”; their fascination with magic tricks.

What’s going on in children’s minds? And how do these thoughts, beliefs and pieces of knowledge develop over time? Many of these events—the annoying, the charming, the dubious—reflect important steps in cognitive development.  All reflect children’s emerging understandings of people’s minds. When children begin to lie, for example, it means they now understand others can have different beliefs —and minds—than they do.

Consider this event involving a friend’s four-year-old son. He recently told his mom he was dressed for school and so was going outside to play. Then, through the window, she saw him playing in his pyjamas. This four-year-old understands: “I know I’m in my pyjamas, but she can think I’m dressed.” So mom’s beliefs can be manipulated; she can be deceived.

Children’s growing awareness of other people’s thinking is called a “theory of mind”. Developing a personal theory of mind requires extended learning by a child and partial accomplishments, punctuated by important advances.

How do children come to understand what is happening in people’s minds? Answers to this question can do more than soothe parental anxieties and resolve their curiosities. They also shed light on how such developments may affect, for example, children’s transition to school and their susceptibility to bullying. Theory of mind is a factor in their satisfying or unsatisfying friendships, their ability to accept feedback from teachers, and their ability to stand up for their own opinions, including arguing with, persuading, and negotiating with others.

Here are three steps in the process of developing theory of mind that decidedly impact children’s lives (and the lives of others around them).

Recognizing that people have different desires

In a classic experiment, known as the “Broccoli-Goldfish” study, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley showed how, even at 18 months, toddlers can understand adults’ desires and intentions and appreciate that these may be different from their own. The young children were offered two treats – a crown of broccoli or a Goldfish cracker (a much-loved childhood snack like Cheerios). The children almost always preferred the Goldfish crackers. Then they watched the treats being offered to an adult, who said “Oh, yummy” to the broccoli and “Ew, yuck” to the cracker.

The children themselves then had the chance to give the adults a treat. If they were merely egocentric, the children might have offered a Goldfish cracker. Instead, they gave the adult broccoli. Even at this early age, children can understand diversity of desire and intentions among others. They know that everyone is not the same.

“How do children come to understand what is happening in people’s minds?”

In many ways the “Terrible Twos”—that explosion of expressed, wilful desire and intentions—reflects children’s exploration of such understanding, and a determination to do what they desire, rather than what adults want. When a two-year-old throws his shoes around the supermarket, or says no to every parental desire or command, mom or dad may be exasperated. But adults can feel some reassurance in that this behavior indicates healthy growth for the child.

Beliefs differ and can be false

Later, children gain additional understandings. They appreciate, crucially, that people’s actions are driven not only by desire and intention, but also by knowledge and beliefs. They understand that what people know or don’t know about the world—think and don’t think—is also important. Two levels of skill develop around the ages of three and four. First, children begin to understand diversity of knowing —they recognize they might know something but another person might not. Next, they learn that beliefs differ and can be false.

When my son was around three and a half, he once told me: “Shut your eyes, Dad.” “OK, why?” I said. “I’m going to do something you don’t like.” So he understood some things about knowing, and how it can influence behaviour, but only partially to begin with. He understood that concealment could help him get what he wanted: I wouldn’t know so I wouldn’t object. That’s a good stratagem, driven by theory of mind. But he didn’t yet appreciate that I needed to remain ignorant for his approach to work.

As you might now imagine, it’s only when children better understand some of these things about knowledge that they begin to improve at hide and seek. In contrast, at two and three years old, they will hide in plain sight or, within a few moments of hiding, shout out where they are, unable to foster ignorance about their whereabouts.

The next level is for children to understand not just knowledge and ignorance, but belief, namely that beliefs differ for different people and from reality. So beliefs can be false.

When he was three and again at five, my son revealed this skill around belief when he tried a classic test in my child laboratory at the University of Michigan. He was shown two boxes. One was a candy box, the other was plain white. When I asked him what was in the candy box, he said, “Candy!” But, when he opened the box, he found it was empty. Instead, the plain box was full of candy.

I closed the boxes back up as Glenda, my research assistant, came in. “Glenda loves candy,” I told my son. Glenda nodded enthusiastically. Then I asked, “Where will Glenda look for candy?” At three, my son said, like almost all children at that age would, that Glenda would look for the candy in the plain box, because he knew that’s where the candy really was. He failed this false-belief task.

At this age children can understand someone’s wants. But when it comes to understanding thoughts, they often figure that everyone shares the same thoughts. They know where the candy really is, so, of course, they reckon Glenda does too.

But what about five-year-old children? Eighty per cent of them predict Glenda will look in the candy box. With a year and a half of additional development under their belts, children can now understand Glenda’s thinking. Her thoughts don’t just reflect the world. Instead, if she wants candy, she looks where she thinks it should be: in a candy box. They’ve figured out Glenda’s actions would be driven by her beliefs —in this case her false belief —rather than by where the candy really was.

Understanding false belief enables children to recognise that people can lie, that they can tell a falsehood. Theory-of-mind research has confirmed this link. Although lying is usually something parents worry about and discourage, it reflects an important insight. When young children tell lies, they’re trying out this insight into what they have learned about themselves and other people’s minds. They are growing via exercising their new understanding. Understanding how people come to their beliefs and misbeliefs also allows children to communicate more effectively, to persuade and negotiate, and it predicts better relationships with their peers.

Photo: Andrew Seaman. Creative Commons.

Moreover, not all lies are dubious. We all appreciate “white” lies —we recognize that polite deceptions can aid positive relationships. Thus parents admire and encourage their children’s sophistication in telling grandma that she’s given them a wonderful Christmas present, even though they don’t actually like it. Learning how to lie appropriately reflects a big developmental step forward in understanding minds and in social skill. This same skill helps children make their transition to school.

Experience shapes understanding of others 

Studies demonstrate that children’s understanding of their own, and of other minds, is not simply an unfolding of a predetermined, biological maturation. It springs out of their social and evidential experiences. As a result, the onset of the different levels can vary in time from child to child—earlier for some, later for others.

Children who are quicker to achieve a more accomplished, fluent theory of mind also make a better transition to school. Theory-of-mind understanding aids children in school indirectly by developing their social skills and so fostering positive relationships with peers and teachers. It also directly affects school achievement by influencing how, and how much, children learn. Children who know more about the mind early on also know more about learning. They better recognize how the mind takes in information and how it acquires knowledge and beliefs. This helps them develop and use effective ways to learn.

Teenage developments: sarcastic behavior and irony

Understanding the minds of others doesn’t end with the transition to school. When children reach 13 or 14, they typically experiment with knowledge and beliefs in further, still more complicated, ways. A prime example is the understanding and use of sarcasm and irony. As much as the “terrible twos” can vex parents of younger children, incessant sarcasm can exasperate the parents of teens. Some teenagers seldom use a literal reply: “Time to wake up—Perfect! I love getting up in the dark.” “Eggs for breakfast again, my favorite.” A rainy day for a family outing: “Great, this couldn’t be better. What a fabulous day!” Some teens can be so sarcastic and archly ironic that you never know if they’re giving you a compliment or they’re ready to go ballistic.

And among their peers, teenagers trade sarcasm with their friends. It’s part of bonding —it’s the coin of the realm. So are other ubiquitous forms of non-literal language: a really great song is “sick;” “sipping tea” means talking trash; “freakish” means great.

It takes more than recognizing ignorance or false belief to understand and to communicate like this. If someone says (sarcastically) “What a great day” when it’s raining, that doesn’t mean they’re ignorant and don’t know what the weather is. It doesn’t mean that they’re deceived. Nor does it mean they’re lying and trying to deceive you. This is a non-literal way to point out truths about the world.

A younger child might think such messages are lying or ignorance. Understanding sarcasm takes learning and development. And when that first comes, it gets exercised.

These developing skills have implications for children’s lives. Kids who don’t get sarcasm and sick, freaky slang may be excluded, stigmatised and considered stupid. They may experience misunderstandings, confused interactions, or even depression and hostility. Theory-of-mind research confirms these links as well.

“When young children tell lies, they’re trying out their insight into what they have learned about themselves and other people’s minds. They are growing by exercising this new understanding.”

Groups with delayed development

Among some groups of children, mind understanding is seriously delayed. The best-known case is children with autism. But a really informative case of delay is found in deaf children whose parents can hear normally. In their early years, these deaf children (though not those born of signing deaf parents) miss out on a lot of social interaction, which normally fosters understanding of differences in intentions, desires, knowledge and belief. Indeed, the results of their singular experiences demonstrate how the development of mind understanding is driven by social experience and is not simply a biological unfolding. They also demonstrate how social understanding and misunderstandings do indeed cause social delays and difficulties.

What should parents and teachers do?

What’s the big message for parents? It’s that development works. As children learn and know more, they get beyond the terrible twos, they learn polite deceptions, and they outgrow incessant sarcasm. They learn and grow.

Adults can also talk about the mind with their children. Research shows that more “mental talk” —who likes what and who doesn’t, who knows or thinks what—leads children to better understand minds. And remember, better understanding of minds helps children have better friendships and better transitions to school, and, in the long run, be less prone to depression.

Children are interested in these topics. They are distinctly interested in who does what and why. This helps explain why we adults become such inveterate gossipers. You can get a sense of this from children’s questions and their search for explanations. In everyday conversations with parents and others, children ask a lot of questions. Indeed, the myriad childhood “whys” can be as exasperating as incessant battles of will and sarcastic replies. The primary thing young children ask why about is why people do things: “Why do some people eat snails?”, “Why is buttface a bad word?” “Why do people kill cows?”

Getting explanations rather than non-explanations helps children learn. In fact, asking children to provide their own explanations also helps. Educational researchers call this the self-explanation effect: Just asking children why 4 plus 4 equals 8 and not 5 helps them to learn and remember. The self-explanation effect appears for learning math, for learning science, for learning history, and for learning about people.

The related message to educators is that sometimes teachers and schools focus too much on academic study. Be wary of increasing pressures for still more. Fostering social intelligence is also crucial: Learning is not all about facts and procedures. It requires social-communicative exchanges; it requires being receptive to teacher feedback; it benefits not just from being instructed but also from attempting to instruct others. It relies on theory-of-mind insights and advances. Enhanced theory of mind aids children in school indirectly and directly.

The same points are good advice to policy makers: Fostering social intelligence — not just IQ and academic study — is crucial. Theory-of-mind understandings are key to promoting a crucial 21st century skill: social intelligence.


 Wellman HM (2017), The Development of Theory of Mind: Historical Reflections, Child Development Perspectives, 11

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