Young children often believe that whatever they hear and see is real. Until a child is between five and seven years old, his experience is limited, and his ability to reason is not fully developed; therefore he can’t truly be logical. It may not make sense to an adult, but to a young child, clowns are real, everything on TV is true, everything other children say is true, and a disguise changes a person. A young child’s inability to distinguish make-believe from reality explains his fear of monsters, masks, and costumed figures.
When a young child watches television, he thinks he’s watching real life. One four-year-old saw a Superman program followed by a televised demonstration intended to prove that Superman really didn’t fly. A man lay down on a table and showed how camera tricks simulate flying. After the demonstration, the child’s mother asked if he still thought Superman could fly. “Yes,” he answered, “but that man on the table can’t.”
It’s very difficult to convince a child that television doesn’t always represent the truth. Toys in commercials look magical and exciting as they talk and move around on their own. It takes years for a child to develop some skepticism about these advertisements. One young boy insisted that sugared cereal was good for him, because television had told him so. His mother explained the purpose of commercials, but he still believed what he’d heard.
Just as a child believes what he hears on television, he also believes what other people, including other young children, say. If his friend says, “There are bugs under your rug,” or “The moon is a dead planet,” or, in a moment of anger, “You’re not coming to my party,” a child may accept the statement as truth without questioning the other child’s knowledge or motives.
Words are taken literally and have tremendous power. That’s why a young child gets so upset when he’s called “a dummy;” he feels he must shout back, “No, I’m not,” or get someone else to reassure him. Children, especially those under three, usually can’t separate names or descriptions from objects and people. A mother told her son that he was handsome, and he said, “No, I’m not. I’m Jimmy.” It takes time for children to realize that names are not parts of things but are separate and often changeable.
Young children can be confused not just by what they hear and see, but by what they imagine and dream. They aren’t sure what dreams are or where they come from: Do they come from the sky? The bed? The toys the child sleeps with? Through the window? Frightening dreams seem very real, and vivid dreams seem part of real life. One child, who had dreamed that an airplane landed in the park behind his house, woke up believing the plane was really there. When his father tried to convince him otherwise, he refused to listen. The father finally took his son to the park to show him that there was no plane.
You can find out what your child thinks by questioning him, listening to him, and observing him. You’ll find that his thinking is different from that of adults and that he believes many things that aren’t true. As long as your child bases his thinking on appearances and his own experience (which is part of normal development), you may not be able to change his mind on many issues, but as he nears elementary-school age, your child’s logical understanding of the world will increase.