What You Need to Know about Children's Cognitive Development

Most parents are aware that their children are developing cognitively at an amazing rate. However, in our busy and hectic lives, it's way too easy to turn on cartoons or a movie for our children as a much-needed babysitter.

Do you know how to meet the needs of the different stages of cognitive development? Do you understand just how crucial your engagement with your children is and how everything you say and do is downloaded in the first six years? Being a conscious parent requires us to provide an environment that nurtures and challenges our children. This environment includes parental responses!

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes.

Cognitive development includes language that is still developing in children.

Sometimes we forget that children don't have the same experience of life or the depth of understanding that we do. Their brains are still developing! Children might as well be aliens newly landed on Earth, unable to understand our world.
In fact, children could be considered "cognitive aliens"—a term that has been attributed to the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget.
Let me illustrate what I mean with a true story:
A father heads outside to rake the leaves in his yard with a toddler in tow. It's a corner lot with a house lined with trees and bushes. Before they start, he tells her, "Don't go around the corner of the house." As he digs into his work, the toddler quickly disappears around the bushes, and the father runs after her. "Remember, don't go around the corner!" Just minutes later the toddler scoots around the corner for a third time, and the father retrieves her, with the same warning. Now it's a game for this little girl, but not for the father whose yard work is being interrupted.
On the fourth escape, the exasperated father swats her hard on her bottom and says, "I told you, don't go around the corner!" The child looks up with tears in her eyes and says, "Daddy, what's a corner?"
No one is born knowing what a corner is. Language is a cognitive skill, and until the developing brain is nearly complete, there is a huge gap between children's processing minds and the world of experience. Children's cognitive development is a process that must be understood. 


The Mistakes Parents Unintentionally Make

Often we forget that children dwell in an entirely different cognitive universe than we do. Many problems in our interactions with children could be solved instantly by keeping this difference in mind.
Young children's brains, especially ages six and under, are incapable of understanding and interacting with the world in the same way as an adult's mature brain. And not only is their language development immature, but during these young years, they download information at face value without logic, because the logical part of the brain is still in early development. This is the developmental stage that Maria Montessori referred to as "The Absorbent Mind."
Therefore, a parent's words have a huge impact! This parental influence behooves us to be very mindful as parents.

Deep Dive: "Conscious Parenting: How to Honor Your Child's Inner Guide While Disciplining."

A father playing peek-a-boo with his toddler as a part of cognitive developmentI would venture to say that when successfully dealing with toddler tantrums and misbehavior in young children and teens alike lies in the bridge of communication—or the lack of one. The mistakes parents make are oftentimes rooted in a misinterpretation, a misconstrued meaning, an unspoken expectation, an assumption, or a misunderstanding due to our overestimating the child's verbal skills.
Or our words may be colliding with our unspoken messages, or we may be using an unkind tone that makes what we say confusing, unpalatable, and perhaps even intimidating. 

It helps to remember we are dealing with cognitive aliens. Young children's vocabulary skills and understanding do not match the complexity of experience and the subtle nuances of the English language. Children have simply not developed enough to be able to interface accurately or to digest all the different meanings and uses of words.

Misbehaving Children Are Misunderstood Children

Here are a few stories that illustrate how interactions with cognitive aliens can have unexpected results:

SandHandsKid1.jpgScenario 1:  A friend of mine owns a Montessori preschool, and we like to share amusing stories from our experiences with children. One of my favorites was about children playing in the sandbox at her school on a summer day. When a little boy threw sand up in the air enthusiastically for fun, the teacher calmly approached him and said: "Zack, the sand stays on the ground."

The boy quickly retorted, "Don't worry, the sand will come back down." He thought she needed a science lesson on the subject of gravity!

Scenario 2:  Once I was traveling with a friend and her eight-year-old daughter. I was telling a story and happened to use the expression "She laughed her head off." The 7-year-old daughter turned to me with great consternation and said, "That is really mean!"

It took me aback at first until I realized that she was taken what I had said literally. She was extremely visual, and she pictured exactly what I said: the woman's head coming off as she laughed.

Scenario 3:  While at lunch at daycare, children were excitedly talking about activities at home. One child talked about his brother taking gymnastics, another about her sister taking horseback riding lessons; a third child was sharing eagerly about the ballet lessons she was taking. A very young child who had been listening for a while and, not wanting to be left out, finally piped up. He said, "My sister is taking antibiotics!"

Related reading: "How to Build Healthy Emotional Development in Children."

Conscious Parenting: Talk Less and Ensure Your Children Understand

Let's face it: we as parents talk way too much and often shift into lecturing or airing our own feelings instead of emotionally regulating ourselves.

To add to the problem of using way too many adult words to express ourselves, there is the added complexity of the English language and its subtleties. The English language is vast, complex, and full of nuances. Parents often use the wrong amount of words with children to make a request or get a point across—too many for a toddler, or too many for a teen! (Ever had children or teens tune you out?) And yet, when our children don't respond in the way we want, we label it as disrespect or misbehavior. Not quite fair, is it?

When you make a request of your child or teen, make sure you have their full attention, use words they understand, and ask at a level that is developmentally appropriate.

Using the situation of a child going outside at a lunch break, below you will see the different ways of making a request for the varying ages:

Toddler:  "Please put your hat on" (while them assisting with their coat and boots).
Preschooler:  "Please get your boots, mittens, and coat on."
Kindergartener:  "Please put on your outside clothes."
Elementary:  "We're going outside. You may want to check how cold it is. Grab a coat and hat if you need them."
Middle schooler:  "Let's head outside."
High schooler:  "See you after lunch."

So the next time an interaction with your child or teen goes sour, ask yourself:

  • "Did they understand what I asked for?"
  • "Was I talking their language?"
  • "Did I use too many words or words they did not understand?"
Check in to see if your child understood before you dish out disciplines. Being curious before disciplining saves a lot of heartaches and builds a happier relationship with your child. And you'll be pleasantly surprised how behavioral problems in children disappear once you better understand cognitive development and respond with patience and understanding. By becoming a visionary parent, you hold your dearest values close to your heart as they benefit your children.

For more information on conscious parenting, check out Heartmanity's other parenting articles and parenting resources.

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Jennifer A. Williams / Parent CoachJennifer A. Williams / Parent Coach
Jennifer is the Heartmanity Founder and a parent coach and behavioral consultant with two decades of experience. She is a Parent Instructor and Instructor Trainer for the International Network of Children and Families and author of several parenting courses, including How to Bully-Proof Your Child and Hacking the Teen Brain. Jennifer is happily married and a mother to 3 fantastic grown children.

Posted in Perfectly Imperfect Parenting

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