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How Little Ones Learn

Girl pouting

How does your child make sense of all this new information? It's easy to assume that children think about things in the same ways that adults do. But research on early thinking capacity tells us that very young children go through a complicated process of sorting and categorizing each new fact, word, and experience they encounter.

For example, when you point to a Great Dane at the park and say, "See the big dog?" your baby may be baffled. To him, dog means the one at home, and only that one. He hasn't yet learned that the word actually stands for an entire class of animals. Before long, however, he will come to understand that any one of a group of furry, barking creatures that come in a variety of sizes, shapes, and colors is a dog.

As they begin to understand these classes of objects, children will often overgeneralize. Not only will they recognize that German shepherds, poodles, and terriers are all dogs, but they may call horses, cows, cats, and just about any other four-legged animal a dog as well. By all means correct your child, but do it gently ("That animal is a horse, honey") so you impart the information without admonishing him.

Learning About People

This phenomenon is also at work when your child greets an unfamiliar (and startled) man in the grocery store with a hearty "Daddy!" She doesn't yet understand that, unlike dog, the word Daddy represents only one individual. It will be many months before she fully grasps more abstract concepts like heavy or beautiful.Your 1-year-old's newly developed ways of thinking and understanding apply to you, too. She may, for instance, become upset if you violate her expectations. If you put on glasses you don't normally wear, or a hat, or have your hair cut in a new style, your baby literally may not recognize you. If your husband shaves off his beard, your little one may be genuinely frightened by the stranger who sits down to breakfast and tries to kiss her good morning. Over the coming year, she'll begin to learn that who you are doesn't change with variations in your appearance, but for now this is a difficult concept to grasp.

Your child's growing understanding that you exist even when out of her sight means that she can seek you out when you're apart. As a result, she's also more aware of people outside her immediate family than she has been before. The stranger anxiety that begins in the latter part of infancy may persist well into the second year. Unfortunately for you, some of those "strangers" may include close friends or relatives. Your baby may even be frightened or shy with her own grandparents if she seldom gets a chance to see them. Given a few minutes, however, most children will follow parental cues and warm up to anyone who appears to have your approval. Your child can then fit this new person into her growing world.