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Developing a Theory of Mind

I’ve been watching this child development series put out by Discovery Channel. They do all sorts of fascinating “experiments” to find out what children think and when they begin to understand how the world around them works. By experiments, I mean fun little games and asking all sorts of questions. Depending on the way the kids play or answer, shows how much they understand.

Of course, I’ve been having a great time copying these games and questions with Micah. It’s fun to discover the reason behind so many things he does, and have a gauge for when he will develop certain abilities. For example, the “Which Hand” game (where you put a small object in one of your hands and the kid has to guess which one holds it) can tell you if a child has the ability to lie yet. If they can correctly play that game without telling you where the object is hidden, they can lie intentionally. Micah thought the game itself was great fun, but when it was his turn, he always brought out the hand with the object first. Every single time. He hasn’t developed the ability to recognize that he can know something that I don’t. Good to know. That means, all of those times when I said, “Did you just disobey?” and he said, “No, I didn’t!” he wasn’t intentionally lying to me.

I hate it when I realize I’m disciplining for something outside of my child’s developmental level. Thankfully, the lying thing is just now coming up, so I haven’t spent a lot of energy on that one. But there have been other things that I have attributed to “sin nature” or simple disobedience and disciplined for that are actually a developmental skill that my kids have not achieved yet. Take this scenario that happened this morning:

Micah: Mom, where is my truck with the engine on the back?
Me: I’m not sure. Please be quiet. I’m trying to put Norah down for a nap.
Micah: Ok. But where is it?
Me: Go check in your room. But please don’t come back in here.
He runs out. Then runs back in and asks at full volume: It’s not there! Where is it?
Me: Micah, be quiet. Check the playroom, but don’t come back in here. Norah is trying to take a nap.
He runs out and comes back again, at full volume: It’s not there!

I admit, this was pretty frustrating to me. But was he intentionally being disobedient? No. Micah hasn’t developed a “Theory of Mind” yet, which means, he doesn’t have the ability to realize that other people think differently than he does. He was so concerned about his truck with the engine on the back being lost that, to him, I must be equally concerned. In fact, it never even crossed his mind that I might be thinking about anything else in the world except where that lost truck could be. What is so important to him is also the most important thing to everyone else.

If I didn’t know this, I might think Micah was just being selfish. Why can’t he see that I’m in the middle of something? Why can’t he notice that Norah wakes up every time he comes in? Why won’t he just obey what I’m saying, for goodness sake?! I might think that he was intentionally disobeying because he wanted to do something else. But that’s just not the case.

When I remember where he is developmentally, I can change my strategy. I don’t have to “discipline.” Instead, I can guide. This removes some of the frustration. I can regain my cool, remind myself not to raise my voice, and help him obey. I give him visual cues to help him remember what I’m asking, and I use my key words that he has learned to obey so that I can speak to him on a level that makes sense developmentally. Back to my earlier example:

Micah runs in again at full volume: It’s not there!
Me: Micah, look at Nay Nay. She’s snuggling her elephant and is trying to go to sleep. Please use a quiet voice. You can check the playroom, but when you go out, I am going to close the door. Listen and obey and don’t open the door. Ok?
Micah: Ok. I’ll do that.

By helping him directly see the visual cues of Norah taking a nap, I think he was able to realize what was going on. I used our hot word for both naps and obedience: snuggle, quiet voice, listen and obey. These are words that have permeated his life as far back as he can remember, so they hit a strong response in him. He knows what they mean, and he knows what he should do. Guess what? He did it! No getting in trouble for disobedience. Just help for obedience, and guidance on his development.

It’s not always so easy. So many days we go through the same words and motions a hundred times before I see any improvement. But we do it because so much of parenting is teaching my kids character. It doesn’t have to be about disciplining it into them. Remembering their developmental level helps me be patient in the middle of the 90th time. When I see that they have achieved a level, then I know what kind of standard I can hold them to. Once Micah develops a Theory of Mind, the grace for situations like today will be smaller because then he needs to learn to think about others before himself. But we aren’t there yet. So we’ll deal with situations where we’re at.

This takes so much pressure off of parenting for me. I don’t have to worry about instilling every bit of character right now, all the time. It goes in phases, just like God teaches us. He doesn’t expect us to be holy instantly. He works with us where we are at, and brings us to holiness step at a time. As long as we are moving forward, then we are on the right track. Thank God for baby steps!

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One comment on “Developing a Theory of Mind

  1. W O W ! ! ! I have been feeling so overwhelmed on a daily basis with Ezra and my “having” to discipline him so often combined with his, I think, resenting me which in turn cranks the handle to the whole vicious cycle. THIS is the key I have been looking for to a door I could only feel with my heart, but so desired to have someone gently tell me assuringly that it was really there. I feel a sense of relief and a newfound energy to invest into my son. I really need to look into this child development series. I praise God for His having led you to this!!! What a great way you have integrated it into your moment to moment, Kimmie. I’m proud of you, my friend 😀

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