Young children are more logical than you think they are

The kids (Griffin—12 years old—and Tabitha—10 years old) and I went on our annual summer camping trip recently.

This year it was Glacial Lakes State Park in western Minnesota.

While there, we visited the swimming beach where a family that included a 3-year-old girl was also enjoying the beautiful warm day.

There were minnows swimming in the shallow water, which the 3-year-old badly wanted to capture with her net. When she stood still, the fish would approach cautiously, but every time she moved, the fish quickly bolted.

Girl (three years old): I want to catch them, Mommy! Why do they swim away?

Mom: Maybe they’re scared.

[Thoughtful pause]

Girl: But I am not a monster! I am not a monster, Mommy.

Over the next several minutes, she repeated her monster claims a number of times. Eventually—as will happen with 3-year-olds—her attention shifted to other things and the swimming and splashing continued.

So What Do We Learn?

Young children can think logically. This runs counter to some assumptions we make about three-year-olds, but it is true.

Here is the logical truth this girl understood:

The only thing to fear is monsters.

Fish fear me.

Therefore, I am a monster.

And deeper yet, she understood what logicians call the contrapositive.

The only thing to fear is monsters.

I am not a monster.

Therefore, the fish do not fear me (and so I can catch them).

This child was not expressing horror at being considered a monster. Rather she was a little frustrated that the fish were not behaving according to the logic she knew to be true. Or perhaps she was a little frustrated with the inadequate (and illogical) explanation her mother had provided.

In any case, her logic was perfect.

We don’t really expect this of three-year-olds but we should. Just as we don’t really expect rich place value ideas in kindergartners, but we should. If we keep our ears and eyes open, we’ll see it and hear it and be able to support its growth.

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