How Perspective Taking Develops In The Children
Perspective Taking. Although perspective taking is rarely considered an essential skill for children, research tells a different story. Alison Gopnik of the University of California at Berkeley has been a leader in understanding how we develop theory of mind, becoming aware that others have different beliefs, desires, and intentions from our own. This awareness is essential to what I call perspective taking. One of Gopnik’s first questions was: when do children understand that one person might want one thing and another person might want something else? When she began to pursue her studies, as I’ve mentioned, young children were typically seen as egocentric and self-absorbed: For literally thousands of years, most people thought that very young children just didn’t have very much going on—they were impulsive, passive, just soaking up the sensations around them.
Perspective Taking with children. One reason this view held sway for so long is that very young children aren’t facile with language. So Gopnik needed to find a nonverbal way to delve into what children understand: We know that even very, very young babies pay a lot of attention to facial expressions, so we felt we could use facial expressions to tell the children what the other person wanted. To test this, Gopnik and her colleague Betty Repacholi (who was the experimenter in the original research) devised a study: Gopnik gives children two bowls of food—one containing raw broccoli and one containing crackers shaped like goldfish.
She lets the children taste the food and finds—no surprise—that most children would rather eat the crackers than the raw broccoli. Then Gopnik tastes the food from each bowl. Sometimes she acts as if she likes the same thing they do—the crackers—and sometimes she acts as if she prefers the raw broccoli:I would have some of the crackers and go “Oh, yuck, crackers.” And I’d have some of the broccoli and go “Umm, broccoli,” as if I really like the broccoli.
Gopnik accompanies the tasting with exaggerated expressions, making a face of total disgust when she tastes the crackers and a face of pure pleasure when she tastes the broccoli. The children, often busily chewing crackers, observe her “I love broccoli” expression with thoughtful perplexity. She says: So what’s happened? We’ve given the children information in a form that they can understand that tells them that what I like is different from what they like. They like crackers and I like broccoli. Then she puts her hand out and asks the children to “give me what I like”: We discovered that eighteen-month-olds would give me the crackers if I acted as if I liked the crackers. But they would give me the broccoli if I acted as if I liked the broccoli. So even these very little children already seemed to have realized, “Okay, this is a strange person—she likes broccoli. But if that’s what she likes, then that’s what I’m going to give her.” Perspective taking.
And what will someone else think is inside this box? What will your friend in child care think is inside this box when he sees it all closed up like this? She found that three-year-olds answer “paper clips,” seemingly unable to fathom that they or other children might not know what they now know—that there are paper clips in the box. But by the age of four, children seem to have figured out the difference. They’ll say that they originally thought there were crayons in the box, and that other kids would think the same: The four-year-olds—still preschoolers just beginning to understand what’s going on in the world—seem to have figured out that someone else could believe something different from them.
Perspective taking with your children. Other researchers have found that, in fact, infants do respond to false beliefs (as such conundrums are called) before the age of four. In one experiment, Renée Baillargeon of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign shows fifteen-month-olds a yellow box, a green box, and a toy slice of watermelon. The baby repeatedly sees the experimenter hide the watermelon in the green box and reach for it there. When the experimenter leaves the scene and the watermelon is then moved from the green box to the yellow box, the babies detect a violation (i.e., look reliably longer) if the experimenter returns and looks for the watermelon in the yellow rather than the green box. In other words, babies seem to “expect” the experimenter to look in the green box where the slice of watermelon was originally left. Perspective taking.
If you look at [children’s] ability to be able to inhibit one answer in order to respond based on somebody else’s perspective, that’s an incredibly important accomplishment, and it’s developing a lot, changing a lot, between ages two and six. This is a fascinating example of how knowing where something happens in the brain allows us to better understand how it happens. In this instance, it also reveals complexity of these functions: the part of the brain that enables us to take another’s perspective develops earlier than the part that enables us to inhibit our own knowledge in order to express it (inhibitory control takes place in the prefrontal cortex of the brain). Interestingly, although children seem able to sense false beliefs earlier than researchers may have thought, under certain circumstances, adults have trouble with this. Promoting perspective taking is a lifelong endeavor. Perspective taking.
A Parent’s Perspective: What Would Captain Hook Do?
Perspective taking. Peter Pan, Wendy, Tinker Bell, and Captain Hook—my daughter loves them all. I spend many evenings pretending to “walk the plank” with a cardboard tube held at my back or sprinkling pixie dust so we can fly (well, really run around with our arms in the air). But it’s also been interesting to see the limits in what my daughter understands about the characters. For Christmas, a friend got her a Peter Pan play set, complete with dolls of the main characters. Sara seems to understand their basic personality types: Peter Pan = nice boy; Wendy = sweet girl; Captain Hook = mean man who says “Arrrgh!” Sometimes I’ll suggest we pretend that Captain Hook has kidnapped Wendy, and Peter Pan must save her. But Sara won’t hear of it. It’s almost as if, because shewould never be mean to Peter Pan or Wendy, she can’t make Captain Hook be mean, either. Perspective taking.
Like Gopnik, Baillargeon, and Saxe, for many years Ross Thompson of the University of California at Davis has been studying children’s false beliefs (or mistaken beliefs, as they are also called). In one experiment, using a puppet stage that looks like a kitchen, children watch a puppet show that involves mistaken beliefs: A puppet has a snack that’s a favorite snack and puts it in the refrigerator, expecting to eat it later on. The puppet leaves the room, and then somebody else comes in and moves the snack from the refrigerator into the cabinet. The first puppet returns and wants his snack. Thompson asks the children where the puppet would look for the snack: in the refrigerator (where the puppet left it) or in the cabinet, where the child knows it really is? Perspective taking.
Perspective taking. Thompson has found that some children learn perspective taking better than others and wanted to know why. He suspected from his own and others’ research that how children gain insight into “what goes on inpeople’s hearts and minds” depends on how parents interpret “the everyday events of their lives.” To test this idea, Thompson created an experiment where he asked a group of mothers to recall a recent time when their child misbehaved. He found that some described the situation in detail, including why the child misbehaved, while others told a story that was, as he puts it, “just the facts.” Thompson elaborated on his finding that parents have different styles of expressing feelings by developing another experiment where he asked parents to read a book about feelings to their three-year-old children. Perspective taking.
There weren’t many words in the story, so parents could interpret this book in any way they wished—they could read the book straight through or they could fill in the story, providing rich detail about the emotions portrayed in the pictures. Thompson and his colleagues hypothesized that parents who elaborated on the feelings in the story would have children with a more developed understanding of others’ minds and better perspective taking skills. To his surprise, he found that this hypothesis was not true. The way parents talked about feelings was not related to how well children understood the thoughts and feelings of others. But Thompson did not give up on his hunch: We began to wonder whether we were getting [at] it too early. So we followed up with the same children at age five. And we found that how the parent had read at age three did predict the child’s understanding at age five. We had just caught it too early. Perspective taking.
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