Help Me Grow | United Way of Utah County

Why Does My 3-year-old Do That?! Are They Deliberately Being Disobedient?

Has this ever happened to you? You give your 3-year-old very specific instructions. 

“Don’t put the candy in your mouth. It goes on the gingerbread house! Where does the candy go?”

“On the house!”

“Yes, that’s right! On the house. Where does it go?”

“On the house!”

“Yes, okay, don’t put it in your mouth. Here you go.”

*Your kid immediately eats the candy*

You think to yourself, what happened? It seems like he understood. Is he being disobedient or deceptive? Was I not clear enough? Was he ignoring my instructions? 

If you have been around preschoolers, you might see them do things that cause you to scratch your head. They seem to understand and you know by now they can follow directions, but why do they seem to do this?

As found in the Theory of Mind experiment that looks at the executive functioning of preschoolers, this behavior is to be expected. Let’s talk about first what is Theory of Mind and what is executive functioning. 

Theory of Mind is when a child starts to understand thoughts, beliefs, emotions, and intentions. There are many factors involved, and one crucial one is inhibitory control. This relates to a kid being able to inhibit their thoughts and behavior. 

Executive functioning is the overcompassing term referring to this specific skill set. The ability to focus, plan, switch from task to task etc. are all under the executive function umbrella.

So the ability to understand your own thoughts, the thoughts of others and change what you do based on this information involves executive functioning skills. 

What does this mean for little Tommy who eats the candy specifically designed for gingerbread houses? 

Tommy discovered early in life that candy is for eating. Luckily for him, that’s true 99% of the time!  As found in this Theory of Mind experiment, carried out by Philip Zelazo, Tommy will only think of that ONE use up until around age 4-5 years old. In this experiment you will see children under 4 have a hard time switching from one thought to another. Their mind seems to get “stuck” on autopilot, if you will, when asked to change their thoughts.

In an interview about this subject, Zelazo further explains that children who don’t have their executive functioning developed will show some puzzling behaviors. They can’t hold information for very long. The direction you just told them will seem to go in one ear and out the other. They can’t use information consciously. They seem to understand or “parrot” back the info, but then don’t use it. All in all, they can’t always fully understand a new rule and change their behavior based on that new rule. Their brains are still developing this skill. 

So when little Tommy learns to do one thing, he is really good at that one thing. Like, eat candy! And asking him to switch to a new rule (glue the candy to the gingerbread house) at this age requires a lot more time. 

How can I help support my child’s executive functioning?

One of the top things to help your child develop inhibitory control as explained by Professor Stephanie M. Carlson is mindfulness.  Now I know what you might be thinking. I can’t get my little one to sit still for more than 2 seconds! How can they practice mindfulness? Luckily for you, it doesn’t always have to involve sitting down and meditating. Mindfulness can include breathing exercises, sensory activities, art, being outside etc. The basics involve structured activities that allow your child to stay present and become attuned to their bodies or environment. 

 Take a look at our previously posted blog post “11 Mindfulness Activities to Improve the Parent-Child Bond”. They provide some specific ideas for each age up to age 3! Zero to Three also has some great ideas. In their article “Mindfulness Practices for Families” they include some great breathing exercises and other ideas! And, of course, feel free to reach out to your Parent Support Specialist if you need more ideas. 

So the next time you see little Tommy eating that candy off the gingerbread house, you can think about how he won’t be this way forever. No, he’s not being disobedient. No, he’s not trying to trick you or deceive you. He’s just barely developing his executive functioning! 

Watch this Instagram Reel for a good laugh on this topic.

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