Do kids tease us?

Tomar del pelo

Reviving the name of the section to which this blog post belongs, I will devote it to the final notes of the book Humor y teoría de la mente en niños menores de cinco años published by Ediciones UCC. These notes are addressed to readers, but especially to children, who inspired this study. The book derives from a research project that seeks to show how children under five produce humor, particularly a type of humor we know as teasing.

Can a 20-month-, 2-year- or 5-year-old kid tease us? The research shows that they can. We will later review some lovely examples of this fine production of children’s humor. For now, I would like to explain what it means to tease. Teasing is one of the most complex exercises that our social cognition can imagine. Teasing requires planning and a process that psychologists call theory of mind. The theory of mind is nothing more than the ability to understand the other’s mental state and interpret it. It is one of the most important human abilities that enables us to live in society. Understanding that the other does not know what I know and, therefore, his vision of the world is different from mine, and that if I want to establish a relationship with the other, I must know where he is psychically and how we can establish a relationship that involves us both, reflects the theory of mind. It is apparent that the production of various forms of teasing involves having a theory of mind. However, many theorists considered that, only until the child has mastered the ability to express himself through language, it is possible for this ability to develop. This study belies this premise.

Let’s see some examples that you will find in the book:

According to the mother’s reports, N takes her mom’s lipstick and hides it under the bed. Mom asks him for her lipstick. The child makes a gesture of not knowing where it is. Then he laughs mischievously. Mom realizes that the lipstick is under the bed because the child has hidden it there. Then both laugh.

This example clearly illustrates that the child knows his mother’s mental state but tries to modify it through teasing in order to create a mental state that seems fun to him.

Another example discusses the child’s ability to understand others’ minds and to modify others’ mental states in order to create fun.

In the words of the mother, V does the following: V and her brother are bathing with their plastic toys. One of them is a duck that has a hole in the bottom where water enters. I do not note that the duck is full of water, but V starts to spill water with the toy by squeezing it. I tell her not do it, but she keeps doing it.

Planning, fun and the ability to understand the effect of their behavior on others are amazing.

Like these examples, the book offers many others of daily life that contribute to understanding the development of the child’s mind.

Finally, I want to point out a very important methodological issue. How was it possible to study the children’s ways of teasing? Clearly, with the help of mothers and repeating what pioneers of development knew how to do skillfully: observing their own children. This technique, so criticized by psychological science for not being very objective, allowed to know what only people who live with kids can see: their children’s behavior in everyday life. Using the field logs that mothers completed on their children’s behavior, it was possible to collect a beautiful material on which this study was based.

Therefore, this is a research and academic book that all mothers and fathers with young children should read. The takeaway is that we have to return to daily life as a focus of study and listen to what parents have to tell us about their own children.

Jacqueline Benavides

PhD in Psychology from Universidad del Valle. At present, she is the Director of the Human Development research line and leader of the Boulomai research group. She has published articles about children’s mental states, child development, the theory of mind and children’s humor. Ediciones UCC has also published her book Contextos escolares protectores.