Adult Thoughts on Childhood Thinking

For many decades child development experts have held the belief that children are far less intelligent than adults; that they don’t understand many facets of life and are largely unaware of them too. Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Alison Gopnik, has set out to change that dated view of childhood cognition in her books ‘How Babies Think’ and ‘The Philosophical Baby’ amongst others, and it’s all to do with imagination.

Alison maintains the view that babies are ‘useless’. There’s no doubting that the human race has the longest time from conception to a child being able to look after themselves and in an evolutionary sense that doesn’t make much sense. To be able to survive better we should become independent as soon as possible, perhaps once we’re weaned from our mother’s milk, yet it’s only 17 years later that we’re considered to be capable. Alison wanted to look closer at the reasons for this and carried out experiments of infants of various ages, that went deeper into their cognition than experts had ever been before.

What Alison and various other child psychologists and researchers found was that children do think and understand complex thoughts, but they do it in a very different way to adults. Incredibly, babies have a better understanding and memory of very complex sequences of events. One experiment involved a researcher showing children a complex set of events that would turn a machine on or off. The children repeatedly followed the sequence correctly, having only been shown once and it was concluded that they don’t have a full and rounded understanding of how that sequence works, but somehow their brains compute it subconsciously.

Now you’re probably thinking ‘why?’ From the outset it’s not clear why babies need this heightened intelligence whilst everything is being done for them, but most people can relate quite closely to it. Have you ever thought, or said out loud to friends “wouldn’t it be lovely to be a child again? With no cares in the world?”. Certainly most of us have. The ‘useless’ child isn’t useless just for fun; children are actually learning very important things about the world while their parents take care of sustaining their survival, finding food, keeping them clean, etc.

Toddlers of as young as 18 months are already starting to learn the difference between morality driven by empathy and morality driven by rules, and this learning can be clearly seen at a number of stages. Take a child at the ‘terrible twos’ stage for example. They’re terrible because they do ‘bad’ things despite knowing their parents won’t like it. To adults it seems calculated and mischievous, but the two year old has only just learned that other people are capable of different values and desires. They’re testing this absurdity to try and understand it.

From studying child cognition much more closely than ever before and looking at children from a very different angle, Alison Gopnik and her team of researchers have discovered something incredible about the way that their minds work. Quite how this will affect the way that parenting and childcare evolves remains unclear, but it certainly gives us pause for thought when playing with our own children.

To Be a Baby – Seed Magazine:
How Babies Think by Alison Gopnik, Andrew Meltzoff and Patricia Kuhl.

This article was written by Lucy Wallace; a UK based author who started writing in April 2008. Lucy specializes in writing on childcare and child development, health and nutrition, alternative therapies, mental health and travel. Visit to see more of her writing work and her philosophy on writing content for the Web.

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