How Does Your Child’s Mind Work at Ages 3 and 5?

Learning How a Child’s Mind Works

Helps Parents Understand Them

The way a child’s mind works involves understanding their thoughts, feelings, intentions, and imaginings. A child’s mind works differently at different stages of development. This affects their capacity to understand other’s points of view and develop moral and social reasoning, as well as, empathy

How a Three-Year-Old’s Mind Works

Carl just turned three. It had been blustering cold in northern New York. It was 8 degrees below with 16 inches of snow in one day’s snow fall.  His cheerful, energetic mother spotted something white in the corner of her dining room. With a closer look, she discovered to her amazement and chagrin that it was ice inside the room! The pipes had frozen! Even though Carl couldn’t see the pipes because they were behind the wall, he reasoned he could fix them by changing the situation outside of the wall.

How Child's Mind Works

Carl fixes the house.

Three-Year-Old to the Rescue

Vibrant, industrious Carl went to get his tool box. Both his parents were always redesigning and rebuilding the interior of his house. He watched them with avid interest as they worked. Now it was his chance to help. He just took his hammer and chisel and chopped up and removed the ice exclaiming, “The pipes are fixed!”

According to Carl’s three-year-old inference, if the ice was gone, then what caused it was fixed!

Three-Year-Old’s Social Understanding

Carl demonstrated a three-year-old child’s growing capacity to understand the feelings, intentions, and behaviors of his parents. How did he do this?

Carl didn’t grasp cause and effect in its most sophisticated form. He drew a conclusion about the frozen pipes that was adorable, but not accurate.

But, he was identifying with his parents who he understood quite accurately intended to make home improvements and enjoyed hard work. He understood their feelings, intentions and goals. He wanted to be like them.

This is social understanding.

How a Five-Year-Old ‘s Mind Works

Cole is in his fifth year when he visited the Normal Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

He sat patiently with his grandmother through the entire talk for adults about how Rockwell spent a decade drawing all the buildings on Main Street for a wall length painting that was in full view for the audience. Cole listened intently.

Then he took Grandma’s hand and they went downstairs to the children’s art room. He drew a near replica of the painting including all the buildings and skyscape.

His visual memory was detailed and his drawing was in perspective. He then dictated a story about his visit to the museum that his grandma printed on the back of his picture.

How a Five-Year-Old’s Mind Works

Cole knew it was his version of Rockwell’s painting.  His drawing stood for the real painting. Cole had abstract, symbolic thinking.

Cole demonstrated a five-year-old’s ability for  visual intelligence. He was precocious and unusual in his artistic abilities. He held in his mind a memory of a detailed picture (he didn’t have a copy when he was sketching). He took it down in scale (from a wall length painting to a small piece of paper). And he put the picture in his mind on to the paper in color. Many children and adults could not do that.

Five-Year-Old’s Social Understanding

Unlike his precocious visual intelligence, Cole’s social understanding was more typical of five-to-seven year olds.

He understood Norman Rockwell’s intentions to depict a place that he called home, as well as, the warm feelings of his artist grandmother who sat by his side enjoying his production.

This reveals how children grasp very particular feelings of others. Children by age five can demonstrate empathy.

Children not only have their own feelings, intentions, desires, and goals, they can appreciate and respond to those of others around them. They have an understanding of others’ minds!


“Theory of Mind” Means Understanding What’s In Other Peoples Minds

As we have seen both Carl and Cole are interested in what goes on in other people’s minds. But their abilities to do so aren’t exactly the same.

The more you’re able to understand that others have differing points of view, the easier it is to make and keep friends.

Watch this video to learn more.

Parents can help their children develop understandings of others by talking about the feelings, moods, and intentions of others during daily life, in story books, and when playing with toy figures, dolls, and stuffed animals.

To learn more about a child’s theory of mind, click here.