Illogical Logic and Your Three Year Old Scientist

When my oldest was three I was cutting up some food for him. “That piece is too big!” So I cut a smaller piece. “That piece is too small!” so I cut a piece in the middle. He pondered. He looked at it. It was not right. He looked for words. “That piece is too… tooo… MEDIUM!”

Ahh.. The illogical logic of a three year old. Everything is wrong. Harry and Mary Contrary were clearly three years old and going through that divine time of frustrated declarations that things are just too darned medium.

Three year olds are scientists. They are reverse engineering the world around them. They’ve been provided with this huge thing called language. Their brains are exploding with new connections. They are able to imagine things that they haven’t heard words for yet. They’re able to understand that words can command actions and that sometimes words can change things and that other times they cannot.

They’re toddling through the minefield of communication and logic.

And their effort look a lot like the early efforts at walking. Awkward. Off balance. Lots of falling. Frustration.

They have no “common sense”. They can’t tell the difference between “It’s bedtime. You are going to go to bed now.” and “It’s not raining outside.” So they try to change the rain with words. They try to change the rule with words. They try to change the shape of their breakfast with words. And slowly they learn the things that can be changed with words and the things that cannot be changed with words. They learn the words to change another person’s behavior (“Please”) and the words to express what they are seeing inside their imagination when something is “too medium” (triangles not squares, cut the chicken between those two grill lines please.) Adults get frustrated when they don’t have the words, too! Or when their words don’t seem to be understood. Just think about how annoyed some adults get when their cappuccino is too much like a latte because their mental picture of a cappuccino didn’t match up with the barista’s mental image of a cappuccino.

This is what learning looks like. Three year olds have no “common sense” because common sense is learned through experimenting and seeing the results. Children don’t learn the reasons behind common sense by simply listening. They learn obedience. Obedience will fail them the second they don’t have someone to obey.

When I was eighteen I started teaching myself how to be a computer programmer. The way I learned was by opening up code written by someone else and making changes. Most of the changes that I made broke things in rather random ways. Slowly I learned not only how things worked but also how they failed. Had I learned strictly from a book I’d know how things worked but I wouldn’t understand how they broke. And when you’re trying to fix something you need to know how things break so that you can recognize the broken bits and you can dig them out and fix them.

This is what three year olds are doing. They’re working through logic by breaking the logic. They’re working through logic by exploring. By making changes that do not work. By being scientists. Scientists have no common sense. They put it aside and do ridiculously dumb things to see what works. To confirm their suspicions. To discover.

Your three year old isn’t being contrary to spite you.

He’s doing science. He’s learning common sense. He’s exploring all of the things that we take for granted because we learned them so long ago ourselves. He’s being brilliant. Inquisitive.

So how do we deal with this little doer-of-science?

I repeat the things that will not change calmly. I understand that they can be upsetting. I know that when I’m learning something new and I’m upset I need to step away for a bit to calm down. I recognize this in my child. If they are not able to calmly accept something that will not change, I help them step away for a minute and then we approach the same problem from a different angle.

I am not afraid of their upset. I am not frustrated by their upset. I do not get angry or afraid or sad or frustrated when my fifteen month old falls during the process of walking. I can be there for her emotionally while she deals with her upset. The same thing for my three year old. I can be there for him when he’s crying because he can’t make the rain stop by commanding the clouds. I can be there for him when he’s upset because he can’t change bedtime by declaring that it’s morning. I don’t need to try and change these things, but I can recognize how frustrating it is for this newly minted explorer of logic.  I can help him find the words to express the frustration and to communicate more clearly about what it is he is trying to do.

“I’m upset because I want the rain to change. The rain won’t change. Can you tell me why the rain won’t change, mommy?” Of course I can! And then we can go splash in the puddles. Because even when you can’t change something you can find things to enjoy and other questions to explore.

And the toast thing? Ahh.. Yes. It wasn’t that the piece was too medium at all. It was that he didn’t have the words to tell me how he wanted it to be cut. When I told him I couldn’t see the picture he was seeing in his head and that he could show me with his finger how he saw it.. I learned that he was hoping for long straight lines, and after that he knew to ask for “stripes”. Tantrum solved. Language barrier conquered. Frustration dealt with. Lesson learned: Ask for new words to describe the picture that you see inside your head.

5 thoughts on “Illogical Logic and Your Three Year Old Scientist

  1. “Common sense” is highly overrated! If we leave them to their own thoughts, and stop trying to make them into “us”,
    the new ones who are arriving will save us all!

  2. I love this: “Lesson learned: Ask for new words to describe the picture that you see inside your head.”

    And the comparison to teaching yourself how to program is a really good one that will help me when my girl is this age. Thank you :)

  3. Sarah, you are such an amazing writer!!! Equally awesome is your parenting style. I learn so much from you!

  4. You have no idea how much I needed to read this. My three year old is very precise about the things she does and the language barrier makes our lives difficult at times, her not being able to communicate and my patience tending to be short lived. This is exactly what I needed. Thank you.

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