As the parent of a toddler, your big adult mind is always trying to make sense of what’s going through their tiny kid one. “Why are you flopping on the ground?” “Why are you biting me for no particular reason?” “Why are you peeing yourself while maintaining eye contact?” The biggest issue is that you don’t know what they’re thinking, and they can’t tell you yet. But science can.

Dr. Dean Burnett, a neuroscientist (and author of the Idiot Brain, and Guardian columnist who moonlights as a stand-up comic), says that the early days of brain development are fascinating because all of the connections needed throughout life are forming and coming together. Dr. Burnett is also father to a 4-year-old son and a one-year-old daughter, so this is basically applied science. Here’s why your kid’s still-forming gray matter makes their behavior anything but black and white.

Your Kid Is Dory From Finding Nemo

Adults have mental models based on experience and the memory of how things should work. These are schemas to organize situations. Young children don’t. “Everything for toddlers is new and exciting; they don’t have a wealth of experience on how to judge things,” says Dr. Burnett. In fact, kids younger than 7 are basically hardwired to not store many memories. Since they’re not Arnold Schwarzenegger, you can’t assume a child will have total, or even partial, recall.

Repetition Vs. Comprehension

The brain doesn’t grow in the exact same way as the rest of the body. A kid can master crawling through repetition, but that doesn’t mean they will grasp the concept of why they need to put on shoes. What toddlers do understand is that when something is different than the day before, it sets them off. “All the connections in their brains aren’t made yet,” says Dr. Burnett. “When their expectations aren’t met, toddlers have lost control. They don’t know how to react, so they get distressed and sound the alarm bells because you’ve given them a red sippy cup instead of the green one.” (To be fair, that red sippy cup is superior.)

Other sections covered in this article include:

  • Small Brains Work Twice As Hard
  • It’s All Fight Or Flight
  • The Evolution Of Screaming
  • They’re Not Tasting Broccoli The Same Way
  • Doomed to Repeat the Past, Only Louder
  • The Good Will Hunting Takeaway

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