When you play hide and seek with your kiddo, have you ever noticed how they will cover their own eyes and think that makes them invisible? What about when you ask your child to pick out a gift for a parent or sibling, and they choose a toy that they’d like to receive themselves instead of something the other person would want.
If your child is around the ages of 2 to 3, you may have noticed any or all of these behaviors. Believe it or not, all of this is expected developmentally! But, why? Because these young kids do not yet have a firm Theory of Mind. Having a firm theory of mind means you understand that other people’s thoughts and feelings are separate and different from your own. Early research about the Theory of Mind suggests that kids develop this understanding around ages four or five, but new research indicates that kids as young as 18 months can display a Theory of Mind through their nonverbal actions and communications.
An 18-month-old isn’t aware of this, of course, but the older they get, the more conscious their intentions will become. Older children might ask (either in their heads or with another person): how will the teacher react when they find out about what I just did? Will my mom get mad at me for taking a cookie without asking first? The ability to imagine other people’s actions and reactions based on experience gets more sophisticated as we get older and more experienced in our relationships.
What can we as parents do with this information? First, we can laugh! When we understand our kids’ brains better, we can find more humor (as opposed to frustration) in their behavior, even when they seem selfish or self-serving.
We can judge them less too. But, of course, we ultimately want them to become compassionate people, so we can coach our kiddos through tough situations with empathy, and help them consider how other people might react to the things they do.
If your child has yet to develop a firm Theory of Mind, they will typically be unable to practice these behaviors consistently or independently until at least 4 or 5 years of age. Even older children need support in considering others’ needs and feelings, but showing them these skills early will set your little one up for future success!