(Credit: AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
Until a few decades ago, scholars believed that young children know very little, if anything, about what others are thinking. Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, who is credited with founding the scientific study of children’s thinking, was convinced that preschool children cannot consider what goes on in the minds of others.
The interviews and experiments he conducted with kids in the middle of the 20th century suggested that they were trapped in their subjective viewpoints, incapable of imagining what others think, feel or believe. To him, young children seemed oblivious to the fact that different people might hold distinct viewpoints or perspectives on the world, or even that their own perspectives shift over time.
Much of the subsequent research on early childhood thinking was highly influenced by Piaget’s ideas. Scholars sought to refine his theory and empirically confirm his views. But it became increasingly clear that Piaget was missing something. He seemed to have gravely underestimated the intellectual powers of very young kids — before they can make themselves understood by speech or even intentional action. Researchers began to devise ever more ingenious ways of figuring out what goes on in the minds of babies, and the resulting picture of their abilities is becoming more and more nuanced.
Consequently, the old view of children’s egocentric nature and intellectual weaknesses has increasingly fallen out of favor and become replaced by a more generous position that sees a budding sense not only of the physical world but also of other minds, even in the “youngest young.”
Dark Ages of intellectual development?
Historically, children didn’t receive much respect for their mental powers. Piaget not only believed that children were “egocentric” in the sense that they were unable to differentiate between their own viewpoint and that of others; he was also convinced that their thinking was characterized by systematic errors and confusions.
For example, the children he interviewed seemed unable to disentangle causes from their effects (“Does the wind move the branches or do the moving branches cause the wind?”) and could not tell reality apart from superficial appearances (a stick submerged halfway into water looks, but is not, bent). They also fall prey to magical and mythical thinking: A child might believe that the sun was once a ball that someone tossed up into the sky, where it grew bigger and bigger. In fact, Piaget believed that children’s mental development progresses in the same way historians believe human thought progressed over historical time: from mythical to logical thinking.
Piaget firmly believed kids were focused entirely on their own actions and perceptions. When playing with others, they don’t cooperate because they do not realize there are different roles and perspectives. He was convinced that children literally cannot “get their act together:” instead of playing cooperatively and truly together, they play side by side, with little regard for the other. And when speaking with others, a young child supposedly cannot consider the listener’s viewpoint but “talks to himself without listening to the others.”
Piaget and his …read more