Your Child's Brain in Week 98
Around the time of your child's second birthday, be on the lookout for a seemingly insignificant interaction: If she is playing with an interesting toy while you have your back turned toward her, she'll now walk in front to show it to you directly. Generous? Sure. But meaningless? Not at all! This simple exchange indicates that your child realizes you and she have different perspectives. Now, she's beginning to understand that you don't literally share one experience of being in the world.
Your toddler has acquired so many skills that support this learning, starting with the initial understanding that she is a similar creature to you. At birth, she stuck out her tongue when you did to signify, "Hey, I'm someone like you who can do that, too!" Later, she began to follow your gaze, trusting that you'd look at things that were crucial for her to see. Shortly thereafter, she used your judgment to guide her actions, a skill referred to as social referencing.
In her second year, your toddler copied your behavior as if to try on the role she saw you playing, and she was thrilled and validated when you mimicked her back. Later still, she realized that despite their human-like qualities, robots didn't fit into her category of being. And in a similarly disconcerting way, she discovered that the things you desired sometimes conflicted with her own preferences. Now, she recognizes herself in the mirror and knows she has a name (and even pronouns!) distinct from yours. Most importantly, your toddler is developing empathy, and realizing that other people not only have thoughts and feelings different than her own but also literally see the world differently is a key step in understanding that the two of you are, indeed, separate individuals.
What the Research Shows
To study "self definition," what scientists call the phenomenon of knowing oneself from others, researchers observed as mothers asked their children to sequentially perform three tasks. Each mom asked her toddler to:
- Show her his own back: This required the child to turn around, away from Mom.
- Show an object blocked to Mom's vision by a piece of cardboard: The toddler controlled the movement of the cardboard.
- Name an object the mother was looking at: The child would need to follow the mother's gaze to determine which of a few objects she was observing.
Each child's responses reflected his or her ability to differentiate his own perspective from that of his mother. And the toddlers passed the test if they responded correctly (if not perfectly) to the three tasks—and by 23 months, most did.