Children are famously bad at considering the future consequences of their actions, but some evidence suggests this criticism is slightly off-the-mark: they may not even comprehend “time” in the same way adults do. A variety of findings from multiple lines of research tentatively support this surprising claim about the limitations of children’s cognition.
Based on the delay of gratification literature, we know that children will reliably choose “less now” rather than “more later” – even at relatively short delays. Children may not be able to adequately represent the value of a future reward as strongly as the value of a present reward, and hence cannot make the same comparison that adults do. Alternatively, children may not accurately predict (and hence, cannot prepare for) their subsequent impulse to receive the reward sooner rather than later. According to these interpretations, children’s failure to delay gratification results from difficulty with representing future states.
Similarly, when presented with a picture of a cold, snowy landscape, nearly 40% of 3-year-olds predict that they would most like to bring along ice cubes rather than a winter coat! Here again, children seem to have difficulty representing or anticipating their potential future state (of being cold), which would have allowed them to select the (rather obvious) correct answer.
But children encounter difficulties on even simpler questions related to time. Around 75% of 3-year-olds cannot correctly report an event that occurred yesterday, nor can they correctly report an event that will occur tomorrow. In fact, similar numbers of children can’t even name something that didn’t occur yesterday, or won’t occur tomorrow – instead, the authors got responses like “I won’t play in the toy room” or “I didn’t do drawing,” verified as incorrect by the parents. So children’s difficulty may not lie so much with the future as with an inability to predict and recall events across time more generally.
One explanation for this difficulty is that children’s thoughts are dominated by their current states, and they cannot represent alternative contexts that may be distant from those current states. One clever study showed that after eating salty pretzels and being presented with the choice of water or more pretzels, children not only prefer water now (as expected), but also predict they will prefer water tomorrow as well! The control group confirms that the majority of children prefer pretzels whenever they’re asked). An interesting question for future research would be to determine children’s perception of their previous preferences – one might even expect them to say that they always did, and always will prefer water!
Consistent with the idea that children’s current internal state dominates their perceptions, other work suggests that children may consistently over-estimate the perceived duration of current events. In other words, they are more likely to say a tone is longer in duration than an identical previous tone (adults tend to show the opposite pattern of results – they’re more likely to say a tone is shorter in duration than an identical previous tone).
A focus of much recent research (excellent summaries at Neurocritic and the Loom) suggests these deficits may be intimately related: it appears that planning & foresight require the same neural structures as those involved in episodic memory, both in humans and other species. So in some ways it is not surprising to find that deficits in recall and prospection go hand in hand: event-based prospective memory (remembering to perform a planned action in response to a certain event) is moderately correlated with recall among 3-year-olds, but not older age groups.
Thus, the root cause of children’s difficulty with foresight, considering the consequences of their actions, and quite possibly a number of other tasks involving time (notably theory of mind tasks, which I’ve discussed previously) may thus be traced not to inhibitory deficits or impulse control, but a failure to apppropriately perceive and comprehend time.
Note: There are some notable problems with my theory, including the fact that children are famous “pretenders” and thus are clearly not completely dominated by their current internal context. One (rather unsatisfactory) explanation of this phenomenon is that pretend play may actually reflect “context-drift” rather than the active imposition of a specific distant context on the current internal context.