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What babies know and we don’t

We may know more than we can say - Babies

Until a few decades ago, scholars believed that young children know very little, if anything, about what others are thinking.

Today, a very different picture of children’s mental development emerges. Psychologists continually reveal new insights into the depth of young children’s knowledge of the world, including their understanding of other minds.

In the 1980s, these kinds of implicit measures became customary in developmental psychology. But it took a while longer before these tools were employed to measure children’s grasp of the mental lives of others.

Children understand us better than we thought

Swiss psychologist Jean 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.

There's no consensus in today's community about how much we can infer from a look, a grimace or a hand gesture.

These behaviors clearly indicate a curiosity about what goes on in the mind of others, and probably a set of early intuitions coupled with a willingness to learn more.

In deep thinking

Piaget may have underestimated infants' cognitive powers, perhaps for lack of modern tools. But his insights into how a child gradually comes to grasp the world around her and understand that she is a person among a community of other persons remain as inspiring as they were 50 years ago. 

It was previously assumed that children develop this skill later in life.

But, says Kouider, he and his colleagues found that even at this young age, “infants already know when they don’t know something, and they are able to signal this fact to their caregivers” in order to get help solving problems.

Their understanding of the workings of their environment, and of their own place within that environment, is much more sophisticated than parents and educators ever imagined.