Getting Stuck in the Terrible Two’s
The terrible two’s – an iconic rite of passage when a toddler becomes aware of his abilities, his personal preferences, and the discovery that he can disagree and even say no. The terrible two’s are famous for causing parental frustration as children resist being coached toward trust and cooperation. Two year olds can be pretty adamant about their view of things.
In the last post, Perceptions as Portraits, Not Photographs, we were reminded that reality, for each of us, is not so much like a photograph in its exactness, but instead is a like a portrait that we paint, very much a creation based on our values and preferences. It is a significant thing to realize that reality is your perception of it. One reason for its significance is that we can admit that we don’t have all the information or all the answers, and that new information can therefore affect our view of reality. I can be an on-going learner, open to new facts and experiences.
Your view of reality is like a portrait you paint.
A two-year-old, it turns out, wrestles with reality, too. Some of our insights about two year old behavior we get through our own observations, while other such insights we get from people like Jean Piaget (1896-1980), a Swiss psychologist and researcher who became very interested in children’s cognitive development.
The book I spoke highly of in the last post, Stumbling on Happiness, describes one of Piaget’s discoveries very well, especially as it relates to the theme of perceptions as portraits, not photographs. Here is a wonderful passage from the book –
In the 1920s, the psychologist Jean Piaget noticed that the young child often fails to distinguish between her perception of an object and the object’s actual properties, hence she tends to believe that things really are as they appear to be—and that others must therefore see them as she does. When a two-year old child sees her playmate leave the room, and then sees an adult remove a cookie from a cookie jar and hide it in a drawer, she expects that her playmate will later look for the cookie in the drawer—despite the fact that her playmate was not in the room when the adult moved the cookie to the drawer from the jar. Why? Because the two-year old child knows the cookie is in the drawer and thus expects that everyone else knows this as well. Without a distinction between things in the world and things in the mind, the child cannot understand how different minds can contain different things. Of course, with increasing maturity, children shift from realism to idealism, coming to realize that perceptions are merely points of view, that what they see is not necessarily what there is, and that two people may thus have different perceptions of or beliefs about the same thing. Piaget concluded that “the child is a realist in its thought” and that “its progress consists in ridding itself of this initial realism.” In other words, like philosophers, ordinary people start out as realists but we get over it soon enough.
Dan Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness
But do we? Do we come to see that others may view something differently than us, or do we at times seem to be stuck at the level of . . . well . . . a two year old? The realistic or photographic view is so appealing, especially when it comes to religion or politics or the behavior of our spouse. Things are exactly as we see them, right?
Recognizing that we don’t know everything or that what we know can change doesn’t mean that we can’t have convictions and strong beliefs. Each of us can and will continue to paint a canvas of reality that represents our view of things, of people, of events, and of ideas. It’s important, though, to also recognize that as we paint our reality that we are doing just that, that there is a paint brush in our hand and that we are capturing events and ideas as we see them, and that everything that we have been and are, everything we hold dear and value, is somehow influencing the canvas in our heads, influencing our reality.
It may sound crazy, but our mental health actually depends on being aware of this truth. When we help students understand concepts like forgiveness and working through disagreements with a classmate, when we mentor them in conflict resolution and teach them about perspective and empathy, seeds for the betterment of students and society are planted. Piaget saw the importance of schools in this matter when he said –
Only education is capable of saving our societies from possible collapse, whether violent, or gradual.
+ Piaget was referred to as “the great pioneer of the constructivist theory of knowing.” I am a constructivist so I think he and I would have gotten along fine here.
+ After graduation Piaget went to work in Paris at a school for boys. The school was run by Alfred Binet, the developer of the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Test (think IQ test). Piaget got involved marking the tests and while doing so he began to notice that young children consistently gave wrong answers for certain questions. That is what got him started in his life study.