Four-Year-Olds: Budding Lie Detectors
A child’s cognitive development explodes around the age of four. They understand what people do is directly connected to what’s in their minds. They know that, if they can figure out what’s going on in your head, they can predict what you’re going to do.
As we saw in the Sally-Anne test, four-year-olds can also detect false beliefs. They can pick up on big lies as well as little “white” ones. For instance, let’s say your four-year-old daughter accompanies you to the shopping mall; and while you’re there, you walk past a pet store with rabbits in the window for sale. When you get home, your daughter asks if she can have a bunny rabbit. You already have three dogs, two cats, and a hamster. The last thing you want is another pet, so you tell her, “No. I’m sorry, honey, we can’t. I have no idea where to get one.”
Lots of adults think they can get away with telling lies to small children, but they can’t. Four-year-olds understand that, if someone sees something, he or she has knowledge of it, so they know what you know if they know what you’ve seen. In other words, your four-year-old daughter knows you’re lying. She knows what you know because she saw you looking at the rabbits in the pet store.
By the time children are six years old, they can detect the difference between their parents’ lying and playing make-believe. Take a moment to contemplate just how sophisticated a discernment this is! Most parents don’t want to believe their six-year-old knows when they’re lying because it means they have to face issues they’d rather not address if they want to have a healthy relationship with their child.
When you realize how little you can get away with once your kids are four and older, it challenges how you approach parenting. You can’t get away with as much as you thought you could. Once you grasp young kids can map your mind and understand what you’re doing, it impacts the way you act around them.
For instance, children as young as four understand that someone can want something mean, hurtful, and socially wrong to happen to someone else. More specifically, kids this age can recognize when their parents want something bad to happen to them. Kids can see when their parents enjoy hitting or yelling at them and wanting them to feel bad.
My clients are typically shocked, sobered, and oftentimes ashamed when they realize this. And the ones who want to be good parents start cleaning up their acts.
Little Lie, Big Moment
Even if we don’t realize what we’re seeing at the time, every parent witnesses scientific proof that their child now has mind-mapping ability. It’s that moment around the age of four when your kid tells a fib for the very first time. Researchers consider the onset of telling lies to be positive proof children’s mind-mapping ability has arrived. Cute and adorable as it might seem at the time, this also means your child realizes you aren’t perfect.
For example, while your four-year-old is in another room, he drops a glass of water, which breaks. You subsequently give him ice cream you promised him earlier because you don’t know about the broken glass. This is a red-letter day in your child’s mind-mapping ability because he now knows your mind is capable of a false belief. Before long he arrives at the stunning realization he can use this to manipulate you. He’ll spend the next decade or two implanting false beliefs in your head to acquire bigger and more expensive things than ice cream.
Once kids know your mind is capable of a false belief, their mission seems to become deliberately implanting them. However, that doesn’t mean they’re good at it (yet). In fact, they’re terrible liars at first. They giggle selfconsciously and draw attention to themselves, advertising the fact they’re up to no good. Or they can’t stop laughing because they’re having a grand old time trying to fool you.
Kids lie in a variety of ways, including stating untruths, omitting important facts, hiding evidence, and creating misleading appearances. For instance, the boy who dropped the glass of water could lie several different ways, depending on how he sizes up his parents. He could do this:
- By commission. (“I didn’t break the glass. Sally did.”)
- By omission. (“Oops, I forgot to tell you I broke the glass.”)
- By misdirection. (“Mom, have you seen my glass of water?”)
End of Your Privacy
You are probably just as stunned as I was to learn that four-year-old children (and older) can map your mind. Even if your kids are now fully grown, you start reviewing memories from their childhoods and reconsidering your interactions with them now. Once you realize you’re under constant surveillance, any privacy you thought you had evaporates. Like it or not, your kids are mapping you all the time. If they look like they don’t see you at all, that often indicates they see you all too well.
If you’re a good parent, this realization forever shapes how you act around your kids. You start looking at past and present events differently. You realize startling things you never recognized before because you didn’t understand the full extent of your children’s mind-mapping abilities. In particular, this makes you less complacent about problems at home.
For example, four-year-olds understand interpersonal conflict in forcedchoice situations. They recognize two people can have discrepant desires, and only one of them is going to be happy about the outcome. In one experiment, for example, researchers tell children a story about two sailors on an island who want to row their boat to the mainland; but each sailor wants to go to a different place. Four-year-olds understand one sailor is going to be unhappy about the outcome, whereas three-year-olds do not.
In other words, you’re kidding yourself if you think your children don’t understand that you and your mate are fighting, even if you don’t argue directly in front of them. If you’re constantly bickering, your kids are monitoring your arguments. Children often have greater understanding of what these fights are all about, and how you and your spouse feel about each other, than most parents realize. This increases as they get older.
Around age 11 a child’s mind-mapping ability reorganizes into adult form, allowing the child to understand sexual motivations and complex social interactions. The child closely monitors a parent’s physical displays of affection and understand things like extramarital affairs. Little, if anything, goes over his or her head. And you thought your sex life was private!
One client told me how he learned how observant kids are and how ignorant of their vigilance we can be. Dale was getting his five-year-old ready for school one day when his son asked, “Daddy, what’s moly?”
Dale said, “I don’t know. What are you talking about?”
“Moly!” his son said. “What is moly!?”
“I have no idea,” Dale replied.
Dale’s son started to get upset. “Yes you do, Daddy! You know what moly is! Why won’t you tell me?!”
“I’m sorry son, but I don’t know what moly is. Where did you hear this? On TV?”
“No! You say it! You say moly all the time”
“What? I don’t say moly. I don’t even know what moly is. You must have gotten this from a cartoon or something.”
Dale’s son got increasingly agitated and started to cry. It took a while to calm him down enough to send him to school. The experience was upsetting, but Dale told himself his son was getting upset about nothing important.
A few days later, Dale offered to make breakfast for his wife and son. He made pancakes because he knew his kid loved them, and together they both usually made a big deal about it. This day was no different. His son was almost jumping out of his chair as Dale delivered a freshly cooked stack to the table. The boy’s enthusiasm was infectious, prompting Dale to exclaim, “Holy Moly! Who wants pancakes?!”
His son pointed at him and said, “See, Daddy, you do know what moly is! What is holy moly?” Dale’s eyes lit up with recognition. That’s where the word came from! It had come from him!
From mind mapping, Dale’s son knew him better than Dale knew himself. Dale thought Wow! This kid is soaking up everything I’m doing, so I’d better watch what I say and do from here on out!
See the World Through Your Children’s Eyes
Once children are 11 or 12, their ever-expanding mind-mapping ability reorganizes into adult sophistication. If you’re not completely honest with them, they’re going to pick up on it. (Just don’t expect them to be honest in return.) Teenagers’ disrespect toward their parents often stems from disappointment seeing how their parents lie and act blind to themselves.
It’s hard to beat kids’ mind-mapping radar. Realizing how early children’s mind mapping starts, how fast it develops, and how much they understand lights a fire underneath many parents. This motivates them to deal with long-festering personal, marital, or family problems. Many clients can’t face their children knowing that their kids see them for who they really were and recognize their shortcomings. Unfortunately, this isn’t true of all parents, whether they know about mind mapping or not.
A client named Josh told me about the many ways he tried to prevent his alcoholic mother from drinking during his childhood and adolescence. She’d go on drinking binges for days at a time. He’d beg her not to drink, and she would agree. But then he’d find her empty liquor bottles hidden under the couch.
When Josh was 12 years old, he tried to enroll his mother in Alcoholics Anonymous. His father refused to support his efforts to keep his mother sober. One day Josh found his mother passed out on the living room floor. She was unresponsive to his attempts to rouse her, and broken furniture suggested she’d fallen. Panicked and afraid she was dead, Josh ran to tell his father to call an ambulance and then raced back to his mother’s side. Josh couldn’t believe how long it took his dad to casually amble into the living room.
Josh’s face was wet with tears and flushed with fear. He looked up at his father and asked “Is Mommy dead?!”
Josh’s father prodded his wife’s motionless body with his foot and smiled at Josh. He said “Nah, she’s just sleeping. She’s tired. Let her be. She needs her beauty rest,” before ambling back out of the room.
In that moment, Josh realized his father was lying. His father knew his mother wasn’t sleeping because she was tired. She was drunk. Josh’s father refused to help his wife or help Josh deal with her drinking problem. Josh carried this memory for 30 years without fully understanding it. The part that stood out in his mind was his father’s smile. Why was he smiling about his wife’s passing out drunk?
Josh didn’t think this terrible memory could get worse—until he finally made himself visualize the living room scene and map his father’s mind. That’s when he realized his father wasn’t smiling about his wife; it was about Josh. Josh’s father didn’t respect Josh’s efforts to help his mother. Instead, he was enjoying Josh’s distress. He enjoyed toying with Josh and lying to him about what was happening. This brought up more anger about his past, but it allowed Josh to finally see his childhood for what it was and move on.
So to summarize, there are three important reasons for understanding children’s mind-mapping abilities. One involves your children. Another relates to your own childhood. And the third involves your present life.
First, understanding children’s mind-mapping abilities lets you do more than simply mitigate negative impacts on them. You’ll gain a whole new appreciation and enjoyment of your kids. Parenting becomes a richer experience for you and a much better experience for them. You’ll recognize things you’ve overlooked and savor precious moments of your children’s childhoods before they’re gone. It doesn’t matter if your kids are now fully grown and have families of their own. They’re still mapping you. Once you view their childhoods through the lens of mind mapping, you’ll understand how they came to be who they are.
Second, looking at your own childhood through the lens of children’s mind-mapping abilities helps you understand how you became who you are too. This forces your mind to grapple with difficult things you previously told yourself you were too young to comprehend.
Third, and finally, learning about children’s mind-mapping abilities helps you deal more effectively with difficult people and situations in your current life. It lays the groundwork for understanding mind mapping in adults, which we’re going to focus on in the next chapter.