Early Developmental Reasoning in Children

It’s a familiar scenario: a family of five has just begun their dinner when the youngest child – a member of the “Terrible Two’s” – swipes his hand across the table and knocks plates of food and glasses of water to the floor. After everyone has gotten over their initial shock, the adults and older children all shout, “No!” in a chorus of anger.

What has the toddler learned? Knock food over = No = Bad. Seriously. That’s his level of cognitive reasoning on the subject, and it doesn’t go any further than that. Next time, he will either remember the consequences of his actions or he won’t, but he isn’t going to have a long, drawn-out inner debate about the issue.

This is fairly common knowledge among parents who see it for themselves every day. They understand the developmental process of young children, and they are aware of the limitations of toddlers. No, they can’t reason. Yes, they understand what ‘no’ means. No, they don’t grasp the difference between right and wrong.

But studies have shown that if you explain things to your children, they will begin to pick up on the ins and outs of behavior much faster, and will probably behave better within just two or three months. This means that when your child does something wrong, you don’t just yell, “No!” and put on an angry face; instead, you explain to your child why what he or she did was wrong.

Take the first scenario as our example. The toddler has knocked dishes and plates to the floor, and is probably laughing giddily, thinking that he has just done something uproariously funny. Instead of yelling, calmly get up from the table, pick up the mess, and talk to your child.

Say, “Danny, its not right to knock things off the table. You just made a mess that Mommy had to clean up, and now dinner’s going to be cold.”

Chances are, little Danny understood about three words of what his mother just told him, but since this is the first step of many, we aren’t woried about immediate results.

As time goes by, continue this method for everything your child does for which he would normally be scolded. If he hits someone, explain that he hurt the person that he hit, and that hurting people is wrong. Ask him if he would like it if people hit him. If he gives a response, great! If not, don’t be discouraged. He will pick it up.

After you begin to see a change, start asking your child to apologize for his behavior. If he hits his sister, for example, explain that he shouldn’t ever hit anyone, and that he hurt her, which is wrong. Then tell him to go apologize to his sister for hurting her. If he refuses, that’s OK. Take him with you, and you apologize to your daughter. Say, “Sally, I’m sorry that Danny hurt you, and I’m sure he feels badly that he hurt your arm.”

The purpose of this method of parenting is to begin instilling a sense of right and wrong in your child at an early age. Even if he or she doesn’t completely understand the concept, the message will still sink in.

It will also change your child’s thought processes as far as actually comitting an action. When he is about to do something that he has been scolded about before, he will think, “This hurts Sally, and I shouldn’t ever hurt people,” instead of “I’m going to get yelled at for doing this.” Of course, it will be in “baby thoughts,” but you get the picture.

Psychologists have debated this issue for at least twenty years, studying the cognitive development of small children in hopes of discovering exactly when concrete thoughts begin to materialize. If you’ve heard of the penny test, for instance, it shows how children use quantitative reasoning. A child of three or four will look at a row of pennies and a column of pennies and think that the row has more pennies. Or, they see a wide glass and a tall glass, both with the same amount of water in them, and think that the tall glass has more liquid because it is taller.

By the time a child reaches the age of six or seven, they are aware that the lines of pennies are equal and that the water glasses contain the same amount of liquid. The entire process is truly fascinating.

But regardless of intellectual development, children can learn from a very early age. Once they have begun to speak, they understand words, and you can help them put ideas together: Hitting Sally = Hurting Sally = Wrong. They won’t get it right away, but it will come!

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