Difficult child

Difficult child
Difficult age group

Mrs. Roberts, 63, lives alone and spends her day doing her daily chores and meeting her friends. She loves to spend time in her backyard tending her kitchen garden. Except for the season when her plum and pear trees keep her busy distributing and fruits and making preserves for her grandchildren, she lives a quiet life.

Her peaceful life is sometimes suddenly stirred- with frantic phone calls from her daughter Linda. Linda looks her mother up once a month, but rings her up at least twice a week. This pattern breaks when Linda gives the distress calls to her mother!

"Mom, they just don't listen!" she screams. Mrs. Roberts visualizes the scene. Linda has a son, Jack aged 6 and a daughter Emily, aged 3. She works from home and her husband tours a lot for his job. It's one of those days when Linda has to submit an important assignment, husband is touring and children refuse to play as asked; that she telephones her mother!

Mrs. Roberts smiles and asks her to be patient.

"It's a difficult age to handle, dear!" she tells her daughter.

Linda goes on describing situations and is surprised to know the easy solutions, which have resulted from years of experience.

Is this age group really difficult? Are the other ages not difficult for parents? Even 80 year old parents find their 50 year old 'children' difficult! So what makes the age group 2 to 7 different? We find most of our answers in Jean Piaget's developmental classification.


Jean Piaget

Jean Piaget (1896 - 1980) worked at the Binet Testing Laboratories in Paris. His worked on developing intelligence tests.

During his study of child development, he observed that children gave wrong answers to the questions that required logical thinking. He believed that there was difference between the thinking of adults and children.

Piaget was the pioneer of systematic study of cognitive development. He defined the stages in the process of cognitive development. He classified the developmental stages in the life of an individual; as 'the sensory-motor stage' which was discussed in the previous article, 'the pre-operational stage', 'the concrete operational' and 'the formal operational stage'.

Before Piaget put forth his findings, the common assumption in psychology was that children are merely less competent thinkers than adults. Piaget proved that children think in strikingly different ways compared to adults. Even today, adults who are unaware of these facts consider children as individual with less understanding and abilities.

When a child is taught numbers, s/he thinks that 'two' is the name of the pencils, whereas an adult has changed her/his perception of 'two pencils'.

So it is not the child who needs to learn to listen or follow parent blindly but it's the parent who needs to learn to understand the difference and respect the 'age' of the child.


Understanding a pre operational child:

The preoperational stage is called so because the child at this stage is getting ready for operations like language usage and logic. Logic is not developed for mental operations and communication at the early stage is done through physical expressions.

Children do not yet understand concrete logic and cannot mentally manipulate information. This stage sees the maximum number of developmental transitions. It shows characteristic traits at different sub stages. The pre operational stage is therefore subdivided into 'preconceptual stage' (2 to 4 years) and 'Intuitive stage' (4to7 years). To know the child of this age, it is important and interesting to know the thinking patterns among the pre-op children.

The pre- operational or the symbolic function stage lasts up to 4 to 5 years. During this stage, children are able to understand, represent, remember, and picture objects in their mind without having the object in front of them.

The intuitive thought sub stage is considered from age 4 to 7. Children of this stage find the solution of any problem intuitively rather than logically. They can grasp only one aspect of an object or situation at a time. They tend to ask questions of 'why?' and 'how come?' It appears that they want the knowledge of everything.

The pre operational stage also shows characteristics like symbolism, egocentrism, animism, artificialism and transductive reasoning.


The symbolic or Semiotic Function

As Linda was working across her table, Emily came running to her.
"Gimme a strawbelly, Mommy"!
"We don't have one dear. Take a plum".
"No! I want strawbelly! Light now!"

It was after this conversation- which went on in the obvious direction with the obvious outcome- that Linda gave a call to Mrs. Roberts.

"If she asks for it, give it to her", Mrs. Roberts said.
"Oh mum! I TOLD you we don't have it at home right now!" Emily was helpless.
"Then ask Emily to give it to you."

With no other solution in hand, Linda gathered her cool and went back to Emily.
"Mommy has no strawberry! Emily, you give mommy a strawberry!"

What happened next left Linda happily shocked! Emily took an eraser lying there and handed it over to Linda.

"Take strawbelly, Mommy!" That was not the end. "Now eat it," she said with shining eyes. With some gathered wisdom, Linda made an action of eating it, by holding it away from her mouth. " Yummy! Emily's strawberry yummy!" There was happy exchange of nonexistent strawberries between mother and daughter. Linda would never believe there would be a simple solution to such a complicated problem!

The solution lies in adults understanding the ability of pre- conceptual children to think in images and symbols but cannot yet manipulate and transform information in a logical way. Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols and their use or interpretation.

During this stage, children can mentally represent events and objects, and engage in symbolic play. Children also become increasingly adept at using symbols which is reflected by the playing and pretending. They play in the absence of the actual objects by assigning their roles to altogether different objects.

For example, representing an empty carton as a cart or a table; small pebbles as snacks, coasters as bread, broom as horse, and leaves being plates are common sights.

Though we may think that they are merely following the elder siblings or they are playing because we taught them to do so, it's more so because of the characteristic developmental stage.

Parents can easily make use of this knowledge in many ways. If stuck in a supermarket or a place away from home and your child is cranky, you can handover objects like an empty carton, colorful packaging mesh or any other object. Just make sure that it's harmless and safe. Also, allow the play under observation. The hazards of putting small objects like mouth should be watched for.


Role Play

An extension of semiotic function is role play, symbolic play or pretend play. If you want to see semiotics in action, watch them assume roles like 'mommy', 'daddy', 'kitty' or ' doctor'. It is closely associated with phenomena called animism and artificialism. Animism is the belief that inanimate objects have human feelings and intentions. For example, my broken pencil is hurt, the bench in the park is a bad person; it hurt me!

Artificialism associates environmental characteristics to human actions. For example, clouds roar during thunderstorm and cry when it rains. The stars shine when they are happy.

Children develop imaginary friends or role-play with friends. They assume the role themselves or accept the one given by others. It's their way of social interaction. Some examples of symbolic play include playing house, playing roles of favorite cartoon characters or having a tea party with small play sets or without. Adults can't stop admiring children's creativity and observation skills, which are their natural characteristics. They can go on role playing for hours!

It's the parents' turn to be creative and use this ability to the benefit of all! They can be the characters in the play and enter their child's world of imagination. It is an excellent tool to form good habits, social skills and attitudes. In absence of a friend, sibling or one parent, the respective role can be assigned to a doll or even a cushion. This role- object can be involved in a conversation.

However, the themes and quality of such role plays need to be monitored by adults. Children easily tend to slip into destructive play. For example, the plays are often influenced by cartoon shows on television characters or characters of video games. Most of the cartoon characters never get hurt the way real people do even after going through so much action. It's the parent's duty to intervene and point out (through role play itself) the painful consequences and steer the play on the right track.

Children involved in violent and dangerous role play are likely to develop undesirable attitudes like antisocial behaviour, incorrect self-concept and apathy in their later stages of development.



Egocentrism is thinking only from one's own perspective and being unaware of that of the others. The pre –operational child is ego- centric in the pre conceptual stage. Their worlds revolve around themselves.

They find it troublesome to see a situation from another person's point of view. The pre-operational egocentric child assumes that other people see, hear, and feel exactly the same way as the child does. They are not even aware that such a concept as "different viewpoints" exists.

Piaget conducted many experiments to study the mental abilities of children. One of the famous techniques to demonstrate egocentrism involved using a three-dimensional display of a group of three hills, referred to as the "Three Mountain Task". The scene was shown to children from one angle and they were asked to choose a picture that matched the scene they had observed. Most children were able to do this with little difficulty.

But when asked to select a picture showing what someone else would have observed looking at the mountain from a different viewpoint, most of them gave incorrect responses. Most of them chose the picture of the view they had seen themselves.

Piaget concluded that children experience this difficulty because they are unable to take on another person's perspective.

These findings faced some criticism from other researchers like Martin Hughes, who argued that children failed at the three mountains task simply because they did not understand it. In an experiment that involved utilizing dolls, Hughes demonstrated that children as young as age four were able to understand the other person's view.

Despite criticism, the concept of egocentrism and then decentering i. e. understanding the other person's perspective has proven to be very important for a child's overall development.

Barbara Park's 'Junkie B Jones' series of children's books exemplifies the egocentrism in children. When the little girl pulls her sweater over her eyes, she feels that she has disappeared in it and no one can see her!

Sometimes children show you things without turning the face of the object to be seen to you. They make sure that they can view it themselves, without thinking whether it is visible to you.

Many a times these children get involved in 'collective monologues'; in which they look like they are conversing with each other but thy focus only on their own thoughts and speak. The dialogues are unrelated or not there at all!

For example, Shelly and Ian, both aged 4 meet in a park. Shelly talks about her new doll and Ian goes on telling how he saw a big giraffe in the zoo. They do not wait for the other person's reply or approval and go on telling their own stories! In fact, unlike an adult thinks in mind without speaking, the pre- op children think aloud!

Egocentrism makes a child look adamant. If I like to eat candy floss, sister should like it, too! A parent needs to understand this feature and cope with it when the child is in the pre conceptual stage. At times 'ok, your sister likes it, too!' can prove to be a practical reply!

On the other hand, it is a social requirement that every individual must empathise with the other person's perspectives. Hence, a parent must slowly help the child decenter i.e. become no longer egocentric. Growing up of an egocentric child into an egocentric adult is hazardous for the individual, the family and the society.


Cause and Effect

Preoperational children use their own existing ideas or views, to explain cause-and-effect relationships. Adults use deductive (general to specific) or inductive (specific to general) reasoning.

The reasoning in pre- op children is neither inductive nor deductive. It is said to be transductive which means that a child does not understand the true relationships between cause and effect.

The pre-op child reasons from specific to specific, drawing a relationship between two separate events that are otherwise unrelated. For example, an airplane passed at 5:30 pm and a then father's car was heard, s/he concludes that because the airplane passed, father came home.

It is imperative for a parent to know how the child thinks. It's fruitless arguing with adult logic with these children as they have their own! The stance should be ' Oh, Really?' and let go, unless it is affecting something important like catching a bus.



The concept of conservation slowly develops through the pre operational years.

Pour equal amounts of water into two identical tall containers. Pour the liquid of one container into a flatter vessel in front of the child. If you ask the child which container holds more water, the tall container is more likely to be voted! This shows the lack of the concept of conservation which holds good for length, mass, quantity and volume. Seeds spread out are perceived more than those arranged close by.

This concept is used my smart mothers to make their children finish drinking milk! Candies can be spread out to make them look 'more'.

Conservation is associated with irreversibility, which means inability to reverse a process mentally. For example, 5 and 3 is 8; but 8 - 3 is 5 cannot be worked out mentally. For this reason, children this age are always taught by allowing them to handle solid objects.

However, it is also necessary to develop the concept of conservation as early as possible which helps the child in estimation of physical quantities, which is an extremely important requirement for learning mathematics and other dependent subjects.



The pre-operational child may have difficulty with classification. This is because, according to Lefrancois, to a pre-operational child, the division of a parent class into subclasses destroys the parent group. Classification is based on primary similarities. If cat is a furry animal with four legs, a dog may also be classified as a cat.



Language development is one of the most important features of this stage. Language is the mode of communication and expression. A child graduates from action- communication in the sensory motor stage to verbal communication in the pre operational stage. During the pre-op years, language develops the most. The child learns word –names for objects and people.

The school syllabus includes phonetics and groups of similar sounding words. Books are full of interesting pictures. Rhymes which appeal to the child's transductive logic are included. Mathematics is taught by communicating with the help of objects.

The pre-op children practice their language by asking constant question, during role play, during collective monologues and while interacting with adults. They want to use the new found way of expression - the language- all the time.

The combination of egocentrism, transductive logic in the intuitive world, and new acquisition of language skill can make them talk amusing things, which may not be true.

A teacher once wrote a note in a child's diary, " Dear Parent, if you believe all that Evan tells you at home about teachers and school, we too will have to believe what he tells us in school about home and you."

Humour apart, but children this age can build up stories which are the by- products of their intuitive imagination. A parent or teacher should communicate to verify facts. At the same time the child should not be scolded for lying, because it's not a lie for her/him! The facts can be drawn from them through their own way- by asking endless questions and then linking the answers. The pre-op child is usually ever ready to talk - but only with people s/he is comfortable with.

The key to communicate with the pre op children is not to expect adult logic. At the same time, many children above 4 years do not like to be communicated in baby- language. The adult communicator must talk naturally but keeping their thinking pattern in mind. They need to feel loved all the time through parental communication. They feel out of place when adults find their talk cute and laugh at them. They need to be taken seriously.


Difficult age?

Coming back to the problem, is this age difficult? Yes and no!

Yes, because we have seen how differently the children of the pre –operational stage think! The main problem is that no traditional adult logic works for this age! You cannot make them understand the cause-effect relationship! They act without thinking. Some fall often while playing while some refuse to move from the television. They talk to themselves in monologues to make an adult think if they are psychologically alright! Sometimes they refuse to wish guests and sometimes they speak out something embarrassing! Doesn't it make the age difficult to handle?

No, when an adult understands the nuances of the developmental stages discussed in this article. The child no more sounds illogical but is respected for his/her own logic!

An adult has developed the sense of logic and thinking from other person's viewpoint. So, if s/he applies it to understand the child's perspective, all pieces of the puzzle fall in place!

This article discusses the age group in general to help parents to know about the developmental stage of their child for joyful parenting. Often, traces of one stage of development are observed in the other. There can be exceptions and variations, which a parent or guardian knows better.