What’s My Child Thinking?

If you’ve ever found yourself wondering, “What in the world is my kid thinking?”, you’re in good company. Almost all parents have probably asked themselves that question, at some point.

Children are not just short adults. They think about things in qualitatively different ways than adults do. Some of these differences are delightful. Because they haven’t been around that long, children see the world as full of exciting adventures and discoveries. I remember one of my children, when she was about four years old, declaring with complete sincerity, “I love putting money in the parking meter!”

But sometimes differences in how children and adults think can be baffling or exasperating for parents. My niece and nephew, when they were little, liked their plates to be clean, so at every lunch and dinner, they carefully removed the food from their plates and placed it directly on the table.
My son, when he was three years old, was deeply attached to this ratty t-shirt that said, “Greetings from Aruba!” I have no idea where we even got that shirt because no one in our family had been to Aruba. He liked it because there was a parrot on it. He insisted on wearing this shirt as often as possible, including to his birthday party.

And what parent hasn’t had the experience of trying to get out the door in the morning and saying to the kids, “Come on! Let’s go. We’re running late”? But we might as well say, “Higgledy piggledy pop!” Although schedules and appointments are a big part of our adult lives, they are meaningless to young children, who tend to live in the present moment and have only a vague understanding of time. Urging them to hurry can raise tension and cause kids to slow down.

If you ask a young child to stop bouncing a ball, chances are she’ll bounce it a few more times. She’s not trying to be defiant or disrespectful. She’s actually trying to stop, but her mental brakes aren’t fully developed, so it takes her a while to get there. Try giving her something to do—such as toss the ball in the basket—rather than asking her to stop. “No,” “stop,” and “don’t” are difficult for children. By telling our kids what they should do, rather than what they shouldn’t, we work with, rather than against, their momentum and make it easier for them to listen.

Here’s some good news: Just by asking the question, “What’s my child thinking?” and genuinely trying to understand your child’s perspective, you’re taking an important step toward being a caring and capable parent. Mountains of research studies show that children are most likely to thrive when parents offer a combination of warmth plus limits. Warmth helps our children feel secure, accepted, and loved; limits teach them to make good decisions and treat others with respect. We can’t—and shouldn’t—always go along with what our children want, but when we start from a place of empathy, we’re better equipped to guide our children with kindness and wisdom.

(Adapted with permission from What’s My Child Thinking? Practical Child Psychology for Modern Parents, ages 2-7, by Eileen Kennedy-Moore & Tanith Carey)


© Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD.