Toddler Emotions: I’m Gonna Win!

In the video of Sam yesterday at the park, he begins by informing us that we were going to have a race and that he was going to win. He tells us he isn’t quite sure how he will win a running race against his 6-1/2 year old sister, despite the fact that her legs are longer. According to Sam, he is utterly and most assuredly going to win this race because he simply can “run even faster” than her! Of course, the head start he gives himself was part of his plan from the get-go. He thought he was going to win, therefore, in his mind, he would win the race, whatever it took. Like a miniature Descartes, who gave us the famous philosophical argument of “I think therefore I am” to prove human existence through logic, Sam believes because he thinks he will win, he will win.

At 3-1/2, it is perfectly developmentally appropriate for Sam not only to want to win but also to believe he will win. In Sam’s world, it’s all about Sam. He is as ego-centric as they come at the young age of 42 months. No amount of convincing or rational explanation would have changed his mind because he is in the phase of development I call “Extreme Magical Thinking.” Magical thinking, which is thinking that one’s thoughts by themselves can bring about effects in the world or that thinking something corresponds with doing it, is very common between the ages of 2 and 7. Jean Piaget, a developmental psychologist famous for his theory of child development, told us that children 2- to 7-years old demonstrate this kind of thinking because they are not able to use logical thinking. According to the Wikipedia article on magical thinking, Piaget told us “children within this age group are often ‘egocentric,’ believing that what they feel and experience is the same as everyone else’s feelings and experiences.” With this in mind, we see first-hand in the video how Sam obviously believes that his strong urge to win is exactly what Stella must want too, which pushes him to get a “jump start” on her.

I choose to add the describer word “extreme” to a child’s magical, or illogical, thinking when it occurs in a social setting versus when the child uses magical thinking to play make-believe or when expressing a personal want or need (e.g., telling someone he could buy a new toy with the $0.46 in his piggie bank). Similar to extreme sports, extreme magical thinking has a high level of inherent “danger” to it because it occurs in relation to someone else’s hopes, dreams, desires or ideas. There is the danger of hurt feelings, aggressive actions, inappropriate behaviors and word choice, and a general poor outcome (e.g., needing to leave the social setting, needing to put a child in time out, etc.). When magical thinking occurs in a social setting, there are also a high number of inherently uncontrollable variables, as there are in extreme sports. The uncontrollable variables present during extreme magical thinking can include, but certainly not be limited to: how tired or hungry the child is, personality/temperament of the child as well as others present (e.g., peers, parents, child care providers, on-lookers, etc.), how many people are present, the temperature in the air, the time of day, etc. In fact, just about any variable present during a moment of extreme magical thinking can affect the outcome of the social situation.

I don’t want to ruin the ending of the story at this point. My next blog post will serve that purpose, so be sure and tune back in to “Baby and Toddler Land” to see how the race ended!


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