Perspective-taking means recognizing that other people have thoughts and feelings different from our own — and being able to imagine what they might be. Your preschooler is just beginning to learn perspective-taking. You can help by encouraging them to think about other people’s responses to everyday situations.
Test your preschooler’s perspective-taking
Try this with your preschool-age child. Out of their sight, get a box of crayons and empty it. Put paper clips (or something similar) inside instead. Then call your child over and ask, “What do you think is in this box?”1
They’ll answer, “crayons,” of course.
Now show them what’s really in the box. They’ll probably be surprised; you fooled them!
Close the box again and think of someone your child knows well, such as a friend or sibling. Now ask them, “What will your friend think is in the box when they see it closed up like this?”
What will your child say?
Preschoolers think everyone knows what they know
Alison Gopnik, professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, has conducted this experiment as part of her research into how children become aware of other people’s beliefs, desires, and intentions. She’s found that most three-year-olds will answer, “paper clips.” They can’t imagine that other people don’t know what they know. On the other hand, most four-year-olds will answer “crayons.” They have figured out that other people can know and think things differently from them.2
Being aware that other people have thoughts and feelings different from our own — and being able to imagine what those thoughts and feelings might be — is one of the most valuable skills a person can have. Psychologists call it “perspective-taking.”
Your preschooler is just beginning to learn perspective-taking. For many of us, it’s a lifelong endeavor. I, for one, am still honing my perspective-taking skills in my fifties!
Help your preschooler identify different beliefs
Gopnik’s research shows that preschool-age children learn perspective-taking best through direct experience. If your child says her friend would say the crayon box has paper clips in it, call the friend over and encourage your child ask her what she thinks is in the box. Your child will see with her own eyes that her friend thinks the crayon box has crayons in it. She will come to understand that her friend knows and believes something different from what she knows.
The most effective way to help children learn perspective-taking is through everyday, natural experiences. Ellen Galinsky, author of Mind in the Making, encourages parents to help children think about other people’s responses to everyday situations. For example, you might ask, “Why do you think Aunt Beth got upset when her friend said she looked tired?”3
Books offer another excellent opportunity for this kind of conversation. After reading an Arthur book you might ask, “Why do you think Arthur got mad at D.W.?” Or after reading Where the Wild Things Are: “Why do you think Max was causing trouble?”4 TV shows and movies also offer many opportunities to talk about the feelings and intent of their characters.
Like what you just read?
Sign up for my newsletter to receive one new article each week, customized to the age of your child. Just enter your email address below and click “Subscribe.”