Bunny Shoes: Theory of Mind

“I want to put this on!” Bella says as she lifts up a fuzzy white mass.
“What—“ before I can ask what it is, she informs me.
“I want to be a bunny!” she squeals in excitement. 

I hold up the ball of fuzzy fabric and realize it is a bunny costume. I also notice, despite how small Bella is, this costume is much, much smaller. This must be for an infant, and she is three.  

    “I don’t think this is going to fit, sweetie…”
    “But I want to be a bunny!” her face is starting to take a turn for the worst… 
    “I think you’re too big for it, Hun.”
    “No I’m not…!”

Sigh. I need to pick my battles strategically with her… At three, she surely has not mastered the ability to judge sizes appropriately. I relent. Might as well show her rather than try to explain to her how sizing works. 

    “Alright. Fine. Come here. Put your arms up.”

She enthusiastically complies. Her arms are in, but I am more worried about this large head of hers. At three, head size is finally more proportional to the body, but still massive, seemingly too massive for this small neck opening and bunny-ear-hood. I try once again to convince her otherwise, but she is determined. 

“Ok, hold on to me! I’m going to pull it down,” I say as I give one last yank. 

She grunts a bit in protest but gets over it quickly when she realizes she has, for the most part, won this debate about her fitting into this bunny outfit. Granted the crotch snap rests on her stomach and the bunny pant legs dangle at her knees, but she’s in it. She adjusts the ears and dons the matching bunny shoes. I’m typically immune to these types of generically cute things, but even I have to admit she looks pretty hilarious… And maybe just a little bit cute. 

She disappears into her sister’s room and emerges with a few pieces of paper and a pen. She hands them to me and asks me to draw a carrot. For the bunny, of course. She is thrilled. It’s amazing how something so small, like a paper carrot can be so reinforcing for her. I forgot how it feels to be three. I try to put myself in her shoes. This reminds me of the Theory of Mind (ToM) experiment. 

Cognitive psychologist developed the ToM test to investigate and understand perspective taking, or putting on another person’s bunny shoes. Typically, kids under the age of four fail this test. Individuals with certain cognitive difficulties like autism or schizophrenia may fail this test. They are assumed to be incapable of understanding another person’s perspective. I am wary of such over arching claims. For one, those individual who are profoundly affected by their autism may not be able to respond to an experimenter’s question, in which case this is a motor control deficit not a cognitive one. Naoki Higashida, author of The Reason I Jump, mentions how he was well aware how his erratic behavior was upsetting and affecting those around him. He surely appears to have some sort of ToM. 

I wonder… Bella is only three, a fresh three; her birthday was just a month or so ago. Would she fail it? While she is rummaging for the next activity, I grab two dolls, a shoe, a book, and draw another paper carrot. 

“Miss RAZ, will you read this to me?” she asks as she drags a book the size of her torso towards me.
“Of course, but lets do something real quick…”

The bunny plops down in front of me with a pink feather topped pen in The bunny looks so serious. 

    “Ok, see the carrot?” I ask as I hold it up in front of her.
    “Yeah,” she responds with reticence. 
“Ok, so here is Mary and Bill,” I say as I present the two dolls. “Mary and Bill are looking at this carrot thinking, 
‘Mmm, this carrot is going to be good! Can’t wait to eat it!’ 
But Bill has to go to the potty, so they decide to both put the carrot in the shoe. So Mary and Bill both put the carrot in the shoe, together, and Bill walks away to go the potty. 
‘I’ll be right back!’ 
And Bill walks away. Ok?” I ask Bella as Bill ‘walks’ away.  
    “Mhm,” Bella nods still a bit confused about where this is going. 
“So, now Bill is not here, and Mary want to play a little trick on Bill. She’s going to take the carrot out of the shoe and put it… Under the book! Hehe! She’s being sneaky!” I say. 

Bella smiles and giggles, enjoying this sinister trickery.  

“Ok, now Bill comes back…” I say as I prance the unsuspecting Bill back into this imaginary scene. “Where do you think Bill is going to look for the carrot?” I ask.

Without a moment of hesitation, she smiles and points with her pink feather topped pen to the shoe where Bill does indeed think the carrot is safely hidden. 
    “In the shoe?” I say with a gasp, trying to conceal my true excitement. 

She nobs and smiles with confidence. 

“Let see what Bill does… “ I say as I have Bill check inside the shoe. 
’It’s not in here!’” Bill declares in agony! ‘Where is it?!’”

Bella smiles again but sits silently waiting for my instruction. 

    “Are you going to tell him where the carrot is?” I ask her. 

She grins and puts her finger on the book where the carrot is hidden under. 

“OH! It’s under the book!” I say as Bill goes to retrieve the mysterious carrot.   “Good job, Bella! That was great! Ok… Now we can read your book…”

I read her the book with added excitement and zeal. 

Though it isn’t unheard of for a young three-year-old to pass this test, I am still very curious about how she passed with flying colors. 

Bella’s older sister, Grace, has autism. For the past two years, Bella has inadvertently been the recipient of a fair amount of applied behavioral analysis (ABA) therapy purely by sitting near or around the action. It shows. This three-year-old is very loquacious, far beyond the normal three-year-old. Maybe it’s the accidental ABA. Or maybe she is hyper aware of how people are feeling because of her sister. Whatever the reason, it’s impressive and noteworthy. She’s grasped the ability to put herself in someone else shoes. I know a few adults who still don’t seem to do that…

A few weeks later, her older, over reactive, seven-year-old sister, Elizabeth, is over reacting to some task I deem to be menial. My typical response is to try and ignore it away, since I have her two younger girls to tend to. Elizabeth is getting weepy and going into her high pitched, unintelligible baby voice. Somehow, whatever it is she is doing is now “impossible,” which can mean only one thing for… It is the end of the world! This is stressing everyone out. Grace is getting jumpy, and Bella looks annoyed. I have no empathy for the type of behavior.

“Elizabeth… Please calm down. Is it a big deal?” I ask, trying to talk rationally to this temporarily irrational little being. 
    “YES, it’s a big deal!” she snaps back. 

What little empathy I had is now completely stamped out by her response. She just needs to suck it up and calm down. I roll my eyes and notice Bella looking at me as she munches on her snack while Elizabeth is still whimpering. 
“It is a big deal for her, Miss RAZ,” Bella says with the most earnest look I have ever seen on a three-year-old. 

I’m speechless. Schooled on theory of mind by Bella, the loquacious three-year-old… I need to remember put myself in her bunny shoes more often.