You are here

How Toddlers Learn About People

We dedicate much of our waking lives to deciphering the minds of others: Why did he do that? Is she telling the truth? Does he really not mind that I'm working late, or is he simply saying he doesn't mind?

We're an intensely social and complicated species, deeply dependent on one another. How do we learn to figure out what people think? New research shows that right from the start, we arrive in the world with a set of assumptions about how other people are like us, and how we're like them. But these innate beliefs are just the beginning. As we emerge from infancy, we must also learn just what kind of people we're dealing with. Does Daddy really like broccoli? Will Mommy go ballistic if I touch that vase? Young children are little scientists: They think, draw conclusions, make predictions, look for explanations, and even do experiments as they try to understand the people around them.

The Wide World of Year-Olds

As babies near their first birthday, there's a striking change in the way they interact with people. Suddenly, instead of just parent and infant insulated in their cocoon of romance, cooing and smiling at each other, interlopers enter the picture: teddy bears, balls, keys, rattles, lamp cords, spoons, puppies, telephones, distant airplanes  -- a panoply of fascinating objects. To a baby just learning to sit up, reach, and crawl, these things  -- formerly the focus of an intrigued but distant gaze  -- become objects of desire.

So of course, a baby begins to point to them and to look at things that other people point to. Though we might take pointing for granted, it actually implies a deep understanding of people. Pointing at something  -- especially when a baby does it again and again, looking back at the other person's face until he also looks at the object  -- shows that the baby knows, at some level, that the person is looking at the same thing he is.

One-year-olds also are beginning to understand what people think about things based on how they look at them. When you show a young toddler something new, something a little strange, maybe wonderful, maybe dangerous  -- say, a walking toy robot  -- what happens? The child looks over at Mom or Dad quizzically to check out what she or he thinks. Is there a reassuring smile there, or an expression of shocked horror? The child will modify his own reactions accordingly. If there's a smile, he'll crawl forward to investigate; if there's horror, he'll stop dead in his tracks.

In one experiment, a grown-up looked into two boxes while a toddler watched. The woman looked into one with an expression of joy and the other with disgust. Then she pushed the boxes toward the child. The toddler had never seen inside the boxes. Nevertheless, he figured something out about the contents just by looking at the woman's face: He gleefully reached into the box that made her happy, but wouldn't open the one that repulsed her. He understood not only that the other person felt pleased or disgusted, but also that she felt pleased about some things and disgusted about others.

One-year-olds can figure out what to do with objects by looking at what other people do with them. In a lab, one of the authors, Andy Meltzoff, showed toddlers an unexpected way to use a new object  -- he touched his forehead to the top of a box, and the box lit up. The kids watched in fascination, but they weren't allowed to touch the box themselves.

A week later, they returned to the lab. This time, Andy gave each toddler the box, without doing anything to it himself. The toddlers immediately touched their forehead to the top of the box. There's a common myth that young children have no memory, but all during that week, the new information about what people do with this thing that lights up had been percolating away in the toddlers' minds. Moreover, the children seemed to assume that if someone does something to an object, they should do the same thing.

You can see this behavior at home, too. Think about how your toddler plays with a toy telephone. Even though the item doesn't actually do anything, he'll mimic what you do with it  -- push buttons, hold it up to his ear, and babble into it.

When children are around a year old, they seem to discover that their initial emotional rapport with other people extends to sharing a set of joint attitudes toward the world. They see the same objects, do the same things with those objects, even feel the same way about them. This insight adds a whole new dimension to a child's understanding of other minds, and of the world. A 1-year-old knows that she should see something by looking where another person points; she knows what she should do to something by looking at what another person does; she knows how she should feel about something by seeing how another person feels.

These revelations also let a toddler "use" other people to get things done. He can point to a toy that's out of reach and expect that the grown-up will get it, or put his hand on the grown-up's hand and get her to spoon out the applesauce. Even before kids can talk, they can communicate to us, just as we can communicate to them.

War and Peace

As 1-year-olds learn that people usually have the same attitudes toward objects that they do, they're setting themselves up to learn something else that's disturbing: Other people don't always have the same attitudes they do. What happens when a toddler reaches for a forbidden lamp cord or porcelain vase? Or when her father directs unappetizing mashed turnips, and not delicious applesauce, toward her mouth? Commonality and communication fall apart.

This must seem positively paradoxical to a 1-year-old. The more clearly she indicates her passionate desire for the lamp cord, the more adamantly her mother acts to keep it away. The more plainly she refuses the turnips, the more determinedly Dad presents it to her. Even though the child and the grown-up react to the same object, their attitudes toward it seem to be diametrically opposed.

By the time children are about 18 months old, they start to understand the nature of these differences between people, and to be fascinated by them. Alison Gopnik and one of her students showed 14- and 18-month-olds two bowls of food: one full of goldfish crackers and one full of raw broccoli (the crackers were preferred). Then the student tasted from each bowl of food. She made a delighted face and said "yum" to one food, and made a disgusted face and said "yuck" to the other. Then she put both bowls near the child, held out her hand, and said, "Could you give me some?"

When she showed that she loved the crackers and hated the broccoli, the kids, of course, gave her the crackers. But what if she did the opposite, and said that the broccoli was yummy and the crackers were yucky? What if her attitude toward the food was different from theirs? The 14-month-olds, innocently assuming that we all want the same thing, delivered the crackers. But the wiser 18-month-olds handed over the broccoli, even though they themselves despised it. Though barely able to talk, they'd already learned that people have desires and that those desires may be different from their own.

Parents can see this in everyday life, too. We all know  -- and dread  -- the terrible twos. The adorable, if somewhat out-of-hand, 1-year-old rogue becomes a steely-eyed 2-year-old monster out of a melodrama. What makes the terrible twos so terrible is not that your child does things you don't want her to do  -- 1-year-olds are plenty good at that  -- but that she does things because you don't want her to do them. While 1-year-olds seem hopelessly seduced by the charms of forbidden objects (the lamp cord made me do it), 2-year-olds can be deliberately intractable. A 2-year-old doesn't even look at the lamp cord. Instead, her hand goes out to touch it as she peers  -- steadily, and with great intent  -- at you.

There are, of course, variations on this theme. We've seen it in our own homes: One of our most charming kids used to produce a radiant smile as she stared into her parents' eyes and moved toward the off-limits object. Another inched closer and closer to the forbidden item in geometrically precise increments until she was only millimeters away from it, locking eyes with her father all the time.

As exasperating as such troublemaking may seem, there's a good reason for it. A 2-year-old is busy testing how her wants and those of others may be in conflict. It's you and your reactions, rather than the lamp cord itself, that are the really interesting thing. If the child is a budding psychologist, we parents are the laboratory rats.

It may be of some comfort to know that toddlers don't really want to drive us crazy, they just want to understand how we work. The tears that follow the blow-up at the end of a terrible-two confrontation are genuine. This stage of development reflects a clash between children's need to understand other people, and their need to live happily with them. Consider it an index of how powerful and deep-seated young kids' drive for learning is. For them, finding the truth is a passion  -- one that may sometimes make them sacrifice domestic happiness.

Thankfully, there's a more positive side to those discoveries 2-year-olds make about people. One day, Alison came home from the lab in a state of despair familiar to many working parents. She thought that she was a terrible researcher (one of her papers had been rejected by a journal) and a failed teacher (a student had argued about a grade), and when she went to make dinner, she discovered that she was also a disgraceful mother (the chicken was still frozen). She broke down in tears on the sofa. Her son, who wasn't quite 2, looked concerned, and after a moment's thought ran to the bathroom. He returned with a large box of bandages that he proceeded to put on her at random, all over  -- this was clearly a multiple-bandage injury. His diagnosis was wrong, but his treatment was highly effective. She stopped crying.

This isn't just a touching story; studies show that around age 2, children begin to display empathy. Younger ones may become upset in response to the distress of others (we all know the way a baby will suddenly howl when a marital argument starts), but 2-year-olds will provide comfort. They don't just feel your pain, they try to allay it. The 2-year-old monster is also the 2-year-old ministering angel.

This kind of emotion demands a sophisticated understanding of other people. You have to know that the other person needs bandages, even if you don't  -- just like the other person wants broccoli though you don't, or that she wants you to stay away from that lamp cord that seems so desirable. Real empathy isn't just about knowing that other people feel the same way you do  -- it's about knowing they don't feel the same way, and caring anyway.

As they grow, toddlers increasingly realize that other people are separate psychological beings  -- beings with other desires, other emotions, other thoughts and beliefs. Of course, they still have a lot to learn about how different people understand the world differently. But they're definitely taking the first steps toward that understanding soon after they take their first steps.

Alison Gopnik is a professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley; Andrew N. Meltzoff is a professor of psychology at the University of Washington; and Patricia K. Kuhl is a professor of speech and hearing at the University of Washington.

From The Scientist in the Crib: Minds, Brains, How Children Learn, copyright (c)1999 by the authors. Published by William Morrow & Co. Inc. Reprinted by permission.