Ages & Stages: How Children Use Magical Thinking

By Susan A. Miller Ed.D., Ellen Booth Church, and Carla Poole


0 to 2 “NO! IT GET ME!”

A young baby’s world revolves around her own experiences. Those experiences are dominated by physical sensations, such as a gas bubble or a soft blanket, with blurred distinctions between herself and the rest of the world. She lives in the moment. For example, 4-month-old Jessica is fascinated by a toy her teacher is holding. She stares at it intently. Yet, when the toy is dropped out of view, Jessica doesn’t look down to find it. She simply looks at another object that is in her direct line of sight. Her behavior implies, “I see the toy, therefore it exists. I don’t see the toy and it doesn’t.” Her worldview is a series of images based on her own experiences rather than a sequence of logical events. (We may perhaps see this persist as “inattention” and novelty-seeking in older children and neotenic adults)

Moments of Magical Thinking

By 12 months, an infant’s thinking becomes more rooted in the reality that objects and people remain the same even when out of sight. This concept of object permanence, along with an expanding memory, makes the baby’s life a bit more predictable. But, she still often misinterprets reality. For instance, 1-year-old Jemima voices displeasure and is frightened when a toy unexpectedly rolls just a few inches toward her. The world is a mystical place, and babies have a fragile understanding of the difference between animate and inanimate objects. (American culture promotes this confusion: “entertainment” aimed at children and adults is saturated with just this infantile perception and presentation of reality.)

Seeing is Believing

When working with toddlers, it’s important to remember that they will make connections that are illogical and frustrating. (Neotenic social typical adults continue to produce “magical” connections as explanations for any and all phenomenon. This literally is what drives Asperger types “crazy” when interacting socially.)

No amount of reassurance (or factual information) is going to immediately convince 16-month-old Ashley (or neotenic adults) that she can’t slip down the bathtub drain like the sliver of soap just did. In cases such as this, you can recommend to parents that they temporarily let the toddler bathe standing up-supporting her while she stands on a safety mat fastened to the tub’s surface. They can reassure her that she is too big to go down the drain and that they will keep her safe. It’s important to respect toddlers’ fears and to understand that, for them, it is often the case that seeing is believing. “The soap slipped down the drain, so I can, too.”

Moving Toward Abstract Thinking

At around 18 months, emerging language and long-term memory pull toddlers out of the purely sensory world into more complex, abstract thinking. They begin to grasp concepts such as cause and effect. (Cause and effect is almost impossible for many adults to comprehend; their “development” is stuck at this stage – “culture” and social pressure either “affirm” faulty designation of cause as “magical-supernatural” and/or fail to “teach” and develop reasoning skills) Difficulties begin because their reasoning, which seems quite logical to them, has little connection with reality. For example, 20-month-old Jason spills a small amount of juice on the table just before a baby in the room lets out a piercing cry. Jason’s expression becomes very sad and serious. We can’t know for sure – that’s the challenge of caring for preverbal children, but Jason may think his accidental action caused the baby to cry.

Developing Theories

A thriving 2-year-old is a busy scientist actively exploring and creating his own theories about how things work. Julian loves to turn lights on and off. Does he think it is his fingertip that magically creates light and dark? Or, is it the blinking of his eyes that he does each time he flicks the switch? Two-year-olds do not have enough information about the world yet to draw reasonable conclusions. (American education fails to supply information about reality – math, science, nature – it confirms the infantile belief that reality is created by “emotional demand” and by spells, chants, rituals – consumerism, “brand” shopping, “free” money-credit – that will “magically” fulfill narcissistic focus. Narcissism is necessary to infants; in adults it is destructive.)

Remember that magical thinking is the very young child’s way of trying to figure out how things work. (Sadly, social typical adults don’t usually “try to figure out” how things work: they blindly consume whatever explanations are supplied by religious dogma, social indoctrination and cultural propaganda.)

Stage by Stage 0 – 2

  • Babies need to be the center of a loving, predictable world-the essential core experience for all kinds of thinking, both magical and rational.
  • Toddlers base their thinking on what they see, hear, and feel-often resulting in inaccurate but creative conclusions. (Improper word – these are “false” conclusions.)
  • Two-year-olds work hard, through much exploration, at developing their unique theories about the world. (This is not allowed to happen: socializations supplies “absolute supernatural theories” which children are coerced into accepting)

Stage by Stage 3 – 4

  • Threes and fours often use magical thinking to explain causes of events.
  • Preschoolers sometimes assign their own thinking as a reason for occurrences that are actually out of their control.
  • Three- and 4-year-olds believe, with their powers of magical thinking, that they can change reality into anything they wish. (This delusion is as American as apple pie!)

Stage by Stage 5 – 6

  • Fives and sixes move in and out of magical thinking as explanations for what they see. (But “modern social humans” do not; this development is not “automatic” – that is a fantasy of deterministic behavioirist psychology) Kindergartners use dramatic play as a way to sort through what is fantasy and what is reality. (American cultures presents fantasy as “true reality” and reality – adulthood as abnormal and “bad”. )
  • Five- and 6-year-olds are still in an animistic stage, thinking inanimate objects can come alive. (Observe advertising and marketing, which depend on this developmental stage; “useless and deceptive” products are guaranteed to magically “turn fantasy into reality” by contagious magic.)



Magical Thinking – Supernatural Domain / Neoteny

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