Reasoning with a Very Young Child (1) - It's Really Possible!

Part (1) of the series: Reasoning with a Very Young Child

Reasoning with a child aged three and under? Is that really possible? Surely, they’re not developmentally capable of responding to reason? Aren’t punishments such as smacking or time-out, and rewards such as star charts, the only way we can only get young children to learn, and to change their behaviour?

My lived experience (and that of hundreds of parents I’ve met through parenting classes) is that yes, you can reason with children - from a very young age. And yes, it is possible for them to change their behaviour, without parents resorting to rewards or punishment.

You just need to give them the chance.

In this series of blogs, I describe skills of verbal communication, and share some real-life experiences (of my own, and other parents) with very young children. In my opinion, the examples illustrate a child’s capacity to rationalise and respond.

Reasoning with a child age 3 and under (1): background; some development theories; and observed outcomes of respectful verbal communication with very young children

Reasoning with a child age 3 and under (2): when your child is unhappy

Reasoning with a child age 3 and under (3): when parents are unhappy with their child’s behaviour

Reasoning with a child age 3 and under (4): when both parent and child are unhappy.


Communicating with the very young

My experience as the parent of a very young child

I'm not perfect - I learn every day!

Reasoning - a definition

Developmental theories

Examples of observed outcomes on small children

My learning

Reference: Research showing babies under 1 can reason.

Communicating with the very young

The parent education course, Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T.) offers a ‘gentle parenting’ approach, and teaches respectful relationship skills. The main skills are: recognising whether you, your child or both of you are unhappy; and then putting into practice the skills of Active Listening, Assertiveness (using I-messages), or no-lose Conflict Resolution. Challengingly (especially for people with small children), P.E.T. does not use rewards or punishment to change a child’s behaviour

The P.E.T. communication skills help children develop essential life qualities such as resilience, empathy and self-regulation, which is explored further in the article ‘How the Evidence of Today Supports the Wisdom of Yesterday.

Dr Thomas Gordon, the author of P.E.T., recognised that using only verbal skills with very young children offers challenges. He suggested additional approaches including: looking for reasons behind behaviour; substituting behaviour; letting children know how you feel (non-verbally); and modifying the environment.

My experience as the parent of a very young child

When I first became a mother, I was blissfully unaware of developmental theories. I understood, however, that although babies were people, they were not miniature adults. They would need to develop in stages, both physically and psychologically. Babies and toddlers were gaining an understanding of the world, and their place in that world. I felt my job was to foster and help build that knowledge.

After attending a P.E.T. course when my first child was just 8 months old, I leapt into implementing the skills on as many occasions as possible. Unimpeded by expectations of what children should or should not be able to understand, I naively put into practice the P.E.T. communication skills. Not every interaction resulted in the behaviour change I’d imagined. What I did discover, however, was how often I underestimated the abilities of my children, Ben and Phoebe*.

All I needed to do was trust the power of respectful words, and the potential of a child.

I’m not perfect – I learn every day!

I am not a ‘perfect parent’ – just ask my children! The respectful communication skills I discuss do not always work, and sometimes not immediately. However, I’ve found that if I parent with respectful intent and see my children as capable, innocent, and acting out of need, my expectations are largely met.

My end goal as a parent, my big picture, is the relationship with my children. From the time they are born, every interaction impacts on the two of us. So when I communicate with my child, I might subconsciously be guided by these questions:

  • Do I understand what is happening for my child?
  • Do I understand what is happening for me?
  • Am I limiting my child by my expectations (or lack of expectations) of their ability?
  • Is my child developmentally capable?
  • Am I giving my child a chance to demonstrate his or her full potential?
  • How is this interaction going to affect my child?
  • How is this interaction going to impact on our relationship?

Reasoning – a definition

What do we mean by the ability to ‘reason’? When thinking of reasoning in the context of a young child, we generally refer to the ability to think rationally or logically, and to come to a conclusion.

Developmental theories

There are numerous theories on child development. For example, John Locke (1632 – 1704) thought a child’s mind was a ‘blank slate’. Perhaps the best known, and most influential, of child development theorists was Jean Piaget (1896 – 1980), who hypothesised that children developed in stages. According to Piaget, children did not begin to reason until they were in the second stage of development (ages 2 -7), and even then, reasoning developed over time.

The Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1896 – 1934) is a less well-known theorist, although his work is now increasing in influence as it is examined and developed further. He devised the Social Development theory, where he felt that the social interaction was important in the development of thinking abilities of children. Comparisons of the two approaches can be found here and here.

In recent years there has been a focus on brain development of the very young. Books by authors such as Dr Dan Siegel (The Whole Brain Child) are devoted to this topic.

Examples of observed outcomes on small children

As a parent, and parent educator, I noticed that when P.E.T. skills are used to communicate with young children, they develop qualities such as the ability to recognise and label emotions; empathy; and increased verbal skills. Below are examples from my daughter, and from class participants.

Labelling and utilising emotions from 19 months

Phoebe was interpreting and labelling some emotions at 19 months. "Sad" was the main feeling she could interpret in herself and other people. When she was crying, she would say "Shaad. Shaad baby", or "Shaad baby" when she heard a baby cry. When she saw her brother mock cry but was unaware of the difference, she said "Shaad brudder". She could also differentiate between 'happy', 'sore', 'sick' and ‘scared’.

Interestingly, Phoebe seemed to use her knowledge of feeling words to soothe herself. When she was crying, and I was simply cuddling her or reassuring her (forgetting to Active Listen!) she’d say "Shaad - Phoebe shaad". I’d then Actively Listen (having been reminded by her), but I’d find she was already calmer.

Differentiating between sad and scared

At around 20 months of age, Phoebe was watching a ‘Pingu’ video. I was in another room when I hear her cry. I assumed she was sad. However, she said "Scary. Pingu scary". She had been frightened by part of the video - something I had not expected.

I was struck by her ability to differentiate her emotions, and tell me exactly what was she felt. This meant I could respond appropriately, by Active Listening. My response to her fear was different to had she been sad. In this case, we put the video away and did not watch it again.

Demonstrating empathy


Phoebe’s carers at childcare noted her empathy, saying she would pat a crying child on the head, saying “Sad – baby sad”. (18 months


I was concerned that Phoebe (aged 2 and a half) wasn’t eating her peas, and sounded harsh with my I-Message.

Phoebe: "Mummy, don't get fwustrated. Don't get fwustwated".

I began to wilt with shame.

Mum: "I'm not frustrated. I'm very worried - and yes, really, I am a bit frustrated"

Phoebe: "It'll be OK, Mummy. It'll be OK".

I picked her up.

Phoebe: "I give you a hug. That makes you happy. A hug make you happy?"

By this time, I had completely melted, and lost all my anxiety. All through being empathically listened to by a two and a half year old!

Children talking more and increasing their vocabulary

At the end of an 8-week P.E.T. course, many parents have noticed that their young children seem to leap ahead in their verbal skills. At the beginning of one course, a Mum was doubtful about using the communication skills with her nearly two year old, as he was not very verbal. She was quite sceptical because she felt "he wouldn't understand". Over the duration of the course, she came to us with stories about the improvement in his vocabulary (because she was talking to him), and how much he in fact understood. At the end of the course, she reflected that she had very much underestimated him.

My Learning

My children have been my greatest teachers. Over more than 20 years of being a parent, I have discovered that I continually underestimated the abilities of my children. The parents I’ve met through my parenting classes have similarly been amazed by the capacities of their young ones, when presented the opportunity.

Becoming aware of developmental expectations, while at the same time avoiding the limitations of strict developmental borders, allowed me to implement a respectful communication skills approach.

I encourage you to open up to the possibilities of communicating with very young children. Help them discover their full potential!

Research reference:

Babies have logical reasoning before age one, study finds.

*Not their real names

Larissa Dann: posted 29 June 2015

© Larissa Dann. 2015.  All rights reserved

Leave a comment

Filtered HTML

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
To prevent automated spam submissions leave this field empty.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.