Understanding How Your Child’s Mind Works – Ages 3-9

Do You Know How Your Child’s Mind Operates?

How Do They Think?

What goes on in your child’s mind? What do preschoolers mean when they say things? Do they understand intentions? Do they know they have a mind? What do they mean when they say phrases like, “he didn’t mean it,” “he did it on purpose.” Can a three-year-old actually lie while understanding what they are doing in a moral sense? What changes between ages three and four that allows the four-year-old to know the difference between what’s true and false? What happens between ages five to nine?

Preschoolers Theory of Mind

Watch this video about the changes that occur between three and four in the ability of the child to understand another’s point of view:


Theory of mind (“ToM”) is the ability of the child to understand that people have beliefs, intentions, wishes, and feelings referred to as mental states. By age four, children understand that others have mental states different from their own. This is a milestone in their development.

Some children with special needs such as those on the autistic spectrum and others with emotional disorders often have deficits in this ability when they are young, but can attain this milestone as they grow older with assistance. It is important for parents and special education teachers to help children reach this goal, so they can relate well to others and feel liked.

This video about the FALSE BELIEF TEST illustrates the differences in the Theory of Mind in action between three and four-year-olds.  After viewing this video, it should be clear how far apart three- and four-year-olds are in their understandings of how things may not be as they appear. The older children understand deception. They are not easily fooled.



If preschoolers impulsively do what they want to do instead of following the rules, such as take another child’s toy away from them without asking, they may attempt to deceive the teacher or parent by blaming the other child for the misdeed. They are conscious of right and wrong and don’t want to be viewed as “bad.” Even if they are justly accused of misbehavior, they may not feel heard because they want to be seen as “good.”

They may even insist, “He did it. You aren’t listening to me. You don’t get it.”



How do you help the child know the difference between right and wrong and still feel heard?  How do you let your child know he misbehaved but you still understand he wants to be viewed as a good child?

One option is for the teacher or parent to recognize the child’s conflict: “You wished to do the right thing but you wanted the toy more, so you took it away from Todd.”

Then tell the child how to correct the misbehavior: “You can say, ‘I’m sorry’ to Todd and ask him if you can have a turn.”

In this way the teacher or parent solves the moral conflict—being good, not bad—and listens to the child’s need at the same time. Some three- and most four-year-olds can accept that kind of response and grow from it.

A second option is to again recognize the child’s conflict: “You wished to do the right thing, but you didn’t make a good choice, so you took the toy away from Todd.”

Then add how to correct the misbehavior: “Now make a good choice and say you’re sorry and ask if you can have a turn.”

In Grade School Moral Reasoning Develops More Fully.

Understanding the minds of children and their development is critical for parents with Parental Intelligence. Parental Intelligence means you keep your child’s mind in mind as you go about teaching them how to behave and new ways to think about problems. At age 3 kids are ego-centric and assume what is in their mind is in the mind of others. However, by age four kids are generally able to understand that another child can have a different point of view. This is a milestone because they are aware of the other’s mind operating differently than their own.

By age eight or nine the child goes a step further. He is able to think about what one kid thinks another kid thinks.  This new mind reading ability is a much more complex milestone and it improves usually as kids get older and more experienced socially.

As adults we are clear people have minds with different viewpoints. This helps us parenting as we try to use Parental Intelligence characterized by understanding the mind of our child.

Eight-Year-Old Mind Reading: A Case of Mistaken Identity

So how does this work during middle childhood?

Let’s say eight-year-old Lin thinks Eva likes Lidia, the new girl in their class. Because Lin is Eva’s good buddy, she decides not to get to know Lidia even though she likes her, too. She’s afraid that Eva will think she’s stealing her new best friend. But what if Lin is wrong? Then she missed out on making friends with Lidia that could lead to the new friend she is hoping for.

She might even try to read Lidia’s mind and think mistakenly she wouldn’t like her when she would, another mistake in mind reading.

Why would Lin be making these mistakes? The reason is because Lin has low-self esteem and generally thinks from the point of view of rejection which biases her mind reading capacities.

Using Parental Intelligence

How can parents help? Where does Lin’s mother come in?

Well she knows her daughter very well. She knows that since she entered third grade, she began to think negatively about herself and began to drawn wrong conclusions about what was going on in other kid’s minds based on false beliefs about rejection.

Fortunately, Lin and her mother have a good relationship and talk a lot. So she knows she’s distanced herself and not tried to make friends with Lidia. She corrects Lin’s beliefs by telling her about her pattern—that she expects rejection and avoids social interactions. Lin trusts her mother and calls Lidia. A happy ending.

How does Lin’s mother have this positive influence over her eight-year-old?  How did she figure all this out?

She has developed Parental Intelligence as Lin was growing up characterized by a parent working hard to understand her child’s mind.

She isn’t just guessing at what’s going on in her daughter’s mind (like Lin did about her friends), she’s been practicing getting to know her all her life and working at looking for clues from her behavior and conversations they have. She knows behavior has meaning and has been observing her daughter’s behavior with potential friends as it changed from second to third grade.

Lin’s mother checks out her perceptions with her daughter so her own thoughts and feelings don’t cloud her vision. It is through their open dialogue that they work at problem solving together.

Mother and Daughter Identify Essential Problems

It first seemed as if the problem was Lin’s misreading her friends’ thoughts and feelings. But there was a larger underlying problem that needed to be addressed—Lin’s falling self-esteem. Her mother used her Parental Intelligence to problem solve with Lin the pattern she had developed of fears of rejection by her peers, followed by social avoidance.

They discovered this began during the transition from second to third grade because that’s when Lin’s father left the house due to the parents’ impending separation. Lin felt like the only one who would have divorced parents and it lowered her self-esteem and made her fear rejection. She felt her parents rejected each other and that this could happen to her, too.

With her mother’s point of view to rely on, she began to correct her internal misconceptions and resume correct mind reading of her peers. Her mother helped her understand that what was happening between the parents had nothing to do with Lin and actually the parents were parting as friends; they just couldn’t work out being married. No one was really being rejected. This revelation helped Lin tremendously. If she and her mother didn’t have this kind of talking and sharing relationship, the problem would never have been solved so immediately and it could have further affected Lin’s relationships with her peers.


This book is an inspiration!To learn more about reading your kids’ minds, take a look on Amazon at UNLOCKING PARENTAL INTELLIGENCE: FINDING MEANING IN YOUR CHILD’S BEHAVIOR.


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