Educating Matilda: Little Lies

I remember a time when parenting was simple. Sorry, scrub that; it’s never been simple but there was a time when dealing with honesty was. I used to be able to ask Matilda a question such as “Did you flush the toilet?” and I knew that I could trust the answer. Even though she knew that she should flush it, she would be 100% honest had she not.


Oh, how things change! Now I have to threaten to check the contents of the toilet if I’m not convinced that I heard a flush whilst she was in there. I have to sniff hands to check whether they were washed with soap. I no longer trust my daughter!

What this tells me is that she has made a big developmental leap. She is developing something called Theory of Mind and that is a big deal.

What is Theory of Mind?

Theory of Mind is a term used to describe when someone understands that other people think differently from them. It sounds like such a simple thing but it takes a lot of brain power to work out that you know things that other people do not. It takes so much brain power that you don’t really see children develop it until about 4 to 5 years of age.

The lack of a theory of mind explains why toddlers are so honest about things, even if their honesty will get them in to trouble. Unless you appreciate that different people can know different things, then what is point on lying? Without a Theory of Mind you assume that everyone else knows the same stuff as you, so this makes lying pointless. There’s not even a clue from the fact that you’ve been asked the question because parents ask their children things that are blatantly obvious all of the time.

Bye bye peek-a-boo

Whilst most children will have stopped this a fair while ago, Theory of Mind really does spell the end for games such as peek-a-boo. This game relied entirely on parents taking advantage of the fact that children did not appreciate that a world exists outside of their own senses. The reason that peek-a-boo is already long behind us is that it also relies on another mental trick known as object permanence. This is the ability to understand that things still exist, even when you can’t see them.

Theory of Mind still plays a big part in how children interact and play with others. For example, here is a picture of Matilda’s hide and seek strategy from last year:


Surely it makes sense; if I can’t see you then you can’t see me. It’s similar when we ask her about the day that she has had at school and she will start telling us about some person that we’ve never heard of before as if we’ve been talking about them for weeks. She knows who they are, so why wouldn’t we?

These days, Matilda finds proper hiding places; which is great fun when she doesn’t actually tell you that she is hiding and you start to panic because you think that you daughter has completely left the house unaided. This is a worryingly real possibility as she is now capable of unlocking the front door, releasing the deadlock and opening the door all by herself! But I digress…

Theory of mind fundamentally changes the way that we interact with our kids and how they interact with us.

Brain changes

The thing about changes like this is that they don’t happen overnight. Your child doesn’t just wake up one day with extra intelligence that they didn’t have before. If anything, it is more like a skill that we have to learn. You start off rusty and gradually get better over time.

If the idea of knowing that different people know different things still sound ridiculously simple to you then just think about this: When was the last time that you forgot to mention something to someone because you thought that they already knew? When was the last time that you didn’t take someone else’s feelings into consideration before you did something? Even grownups get this wrong sometimes. It’s a tricky thing to do consistently and sometimes we forget.

What I am often getting from Matilda at the moment is the exact opposite. She will frequently tell me things that are completely and totally obvious. I’d always wondered why children did this, but I think that she is learning to share information. She is now thinking that if she has learnt something new, maybe other people don’t know about it and she should let them know.

Whilst development points like this make for interesting topics for conversation, they are also very good at distracting me from the fact that my little girl is growing up.

Matilda’s Lab ©2018.

Matilda’s Lab is written to try and help adults explain complex science to children. Every effort is made to keep the content as accurate as possible but sometimes it is necessary to oversimplify things. However, if you think that anything here is categorically wrong then please get in touch so that a correction may be made.

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