Theory of Mind

“Theory of mind is a person’s idea about their own and others’ mental states- about their feelings, perceptions, thoughts, and the behaviors these might predict (Myers, p. 178).” A child does not have awareness of who or what they are before the age of two, they merely just “are.” Reaching the age of three is when a child begins the stage of developing a theory of mind.

A two or three year old child understands what it means when someone wants something and they will make an effort to get it. If a child wants a cookie, he or she may try to take another child’s cookie rather than ask for a cookie from the caregiver.  The child is trying to fulfill their own desires. However, a child may do the same thing if someone they love wants a cookie; thus, “taking care” of someone else’s needs or wants.  This is a vital step for the child to recognize that others have wants and needs and they are capable of helping others not just themselves.

A preschooler has a pretty clear understanding of basic emotions; differentiating between happiness and sadness in themselves and others. The ability to discern positive from negative emotional responses is an important development in theory of mind. A child can alert others to the emotional state of family members or peers.  When a preschooler notices that Mommy is sad, he or she will likely try to “make” Mommy happy by giving her a hug or by telling her to be happy.  This is a key development that is lacking in a child with autism; they are unable to recognize the facial cues and body language to assess other person’s mood or emotion.


Perception is being aware of what one knows and sees while at the same time realizing that other people know and see differently. Perception can be a difficult thing to learn and understand. By age four or five a child can understand the difference between their own perception and that of others. In an experiment by Jenkins & Astington, children were shown a box from a name brand bandages and then asked what was inside. The children were surprised when they found pencils, rather than bandages inside the box. When they were asked what they thought a child who had never seen the box might think was in it, three year old kids answered, “pencils.” The four and five year old children grinned and answered, “bandages!” (Meyers, 178)

When dealing with theory of mind in an infant or toddler, parents should nurture their child and let the child express thoughts and emotions as needed and appropriate.  A child should be challenged with a variety of activities including social interactions to ensure that their minds can develop accurately, with the ability to understand themselves as well as others.

References

Grace, Elizabeth. “The Young Child’s Theory of Mind”. Kid’s Development, 29 2012. Web. 27 Oct 2012. <http://www.kidsdevelopment.co.uk/YoungChildrensTheoryOfMind.html&gt;.

Myers, David G. Psychology Tenth Edition. New York: Worth Publishers, 2013. Print.

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