An Interview With Professor John Flavell

by Deepa Rai, Parent, West AM
The Bing Times - December 1995

Professor John Flavell, developmental psychologist, has taught and conducted research at Stanford University for almost 20 years. Bing Nursery School has been the site for a part of his research during 19 of those years. Dr. Flavell has more than 120 publications and has received world-wide recognition for his work on how children understand the concept of appearance versus reality. It was my pleasure to interview Professor John Flavell recently. Following is a transcript of that interview:

Could you tell us what your main emphasis is with respect to your research work on children?
I am interested in normal children's psychological understanding, specifically their understanding of the mind and mental phenomena. For example, what do children know about thinking, beliefs, emotions, intentions, perception, vision, or other mental activities?

What age group is your research work based on?
Often it is the 3- and 4 year-olds that we are interested in but it really depends on what mental phenomenon we are interested in.

Is there any reason your focus is on the 3- and 4-year-old group? Is there something that goes on at that age-level with respect to their perceptions of the mental world?
That's the age when children begin to learn some things about the mind and therefore it is a good age to look at. For example, a 3-year-old may not know a specific concept, whereas a 4-year-old would know that concept. As a researcher it is helpful to study this transition of a 3-year-old's perception to a 4-year-old's perception of some phenomenon. Sometimes, the change we are interested in may occur from preschool to adulthood. To study this, we would study 4-year-olds here at Bing Nursery School, then 7- to 8-year-olds in an elementary school, then maybe a group of young adults in college. The Bing component in our research is only one component of our research. The age group may be only one of several components of a study.

What are the implications of your research? What is the importance of your research?
It depends on how you define "important." A lot of our research is simply basic research studying what children understand, what they think and their ideas at different ages, and how they progress from one stage to another. This may not have any practical implications at all. However, some of it could be potentially very important. For example, we have shown that as children grow older they are better able to distinguish how things appear from how they really are. This might suggest that older children would therefore understand that a smiling stranger driving by in a car may "seem" nice but not really "be" nice. The idea that someone could "seem" to be one way and yet "not" be that way in reality may be helped by the child's ability to distinguish between appearance and reality.

Are there things parents can do to enhance that understanding in children of the distinction between appearance and reality?
I think so. However, the suggestion is not that parents should go about trying to do special things to make sure their child understands this distinction. Children will acquire these abilities in the natural course of time. However, there is evidence to suggest that, in general, parents who are more psychologically-minded in their discussions with their children, tend to raise more psychologically-minded children. For example, there is evidence that parents who talk to their children a lot about emotions and feelings tend to have children who are able to take others' perspective more often. Some of the techniques used by these parents include describing how a child is feeling, "You did not like the way Johnny pushed you, and that makes you mad," or discussing how the parent actually feels, for example, "I really felt angry when you yelled at me," or pointing out the different feelings in a conflict situation, just like the teachers do at Bing. This is all very helpful to a child because it describes in tangible words what is not tangible, such as emotions, thoughts, and feelings. This technique of stressing that different people have different thoughts and different ideas and that the way the child sees things may not be the way others see it is called "perspective-taking." The techniques I have described help children become more psychologically-minded. Children who grow up to be sensitive and are able to see other people's point of view tend to have backgrounds where they have grown up around people who were psychologically-minded themselves.

Can you tell us about your research methodology here at Bing? What do the children do in the game rooms?
We would present children with fake objects such as a rock, which in reality is a sponge, colored to look like a rock. We would then ask the child, "What is this?" The child would say, "It is a rock." We would then proceed to let the child touch the object and see that it is a sponge and then follow with two more questions: (1) "When you look at this, does it look like a rock or look like a sponge?" (the appearance question) and (2) "What is this thing really and truly, is it really a rock or really a sponge?" (the reality question). Most 3-year-olds can think of the rock in only one way so they tend to respond "rock" to both questions or "sponge" to both questions. Three-year-olds can represent what they see in only one way. Three-year olds cannot differentiate between how something appears to be and how it really is. However, by age 4 and 5, the child is able to say, "It looks like a rock but is really a sponge," just as adults would answer. Similar research has been done by others with respect to children's beliefs. A researcher would show a box of Band-Aids to a child. The child would think there are Band-Aids in the box. However, the researcher shows the child the inside of the box and the child discovers that there are no Band-Aids but there are crayons. The researcher proceeds to ask the child, "Suppose we get your friend to come in here? She has not seen this box at all. What do you think your friend will think is in this box?" Three-year-olds will answer, "Crayons," but 5-year-olds will say, with a grin, "Band-Aids". Three-year-olds cannot take into account the "belief" aspect of this, they report the reality. They do not understand the concept of a "false belief". It is very clear from this type of research that children cannot make the distinction between people's belief versus reality. Another object we have used in the game room studying the same concept of appearance versus reality includes: a white paper with blue filter on top. We then proceed to ask the question whether it is really a blue paper or a white paper. We have also used a magnifying glass on a small sketch and then followed up with the questions, "Is it really small or really big?" and "Does it look big or small?"

Can you tell us when we can expect children to understand the difference between telling the truth and deception?
It is not so clear. Certainly, by age 5 they can understand this concept of deception. Young children (3 or 4) will deceive primarily as a means to an end, i.e., to get what they want. The intention is not to mislead the parent or deceive the parent but to simply get what they need. For example, a child at age 3 will answer, "Yes, I washed my hands" simply so that she can start eating even if she has not washed her hands. It is not a conscious effort on the part of a 3-year-old to mislead the parent. It is done as a learned behavior to get what they need done for them, to get an immediate solution to their needs. By age 5, children understand that if they don't wash their hands and say that they did, Mom and Dad would not be too happy about the lie. This knowledge that the parent would be unhappy should eventually dissuade a child from deceiving a parent. Children learn to behave in a manner that would meet their parents' expectations gradually and over time.

What can parents do to help a child learn the importance of telling the truth?
Parents can stress very early on that they think it is important to tell the truth, that they expect to be told the truth. There is no need to make a big issue of deception but it is important for parents to stress that it is important to them that the child tells the truth. Here, as elsewhere, children tend to want to meet their parents' expectations.

What are your thoughts on watching television with respect to young children?
I am not against children watching television but I certainly don't think it is appropriate to just leave your children in front of the television for hours on end. There are a lot of very good shows on television that children can learn from. However, research evidence shows that children who watch a lot of violent/aggressive shows tend to become less sensitive to violence and display aggressive behavior themselves. I think it is important to monitor television watching and make sure the shows being watched are not violent.

Is there something that parents are doing more today than they were doing 25 to 30 years ago?
There is evidence to show that there is a more psychologically-minded approach today to rearing children than there was 25 to 30 years ago. By this I mean parents tend to talk to their children more about feelings, pointing out different perspectives and viewpoints than parents did years ago. Many parents are discussing feelings and ideas more spontaneously with children.

One final question Professor Flavell, moving away from research, do you have any advice for parents of the 90's?
Relax and enjoy your children. Don't think that you have to spend all your time teaching them or instructing them. We can get over-preoccupied with child-rearing or over-obsessed. Sometimes doing what seems natural and sensible to the parent works better than following some formula in a book. In general, though, child rearing that is both firm and affectionate (standards enforced, but with warmth) seems to be the best recipe, the research evidence suggests. There should be some balance between meeting your own needs and your children's needs. Children shouldn't feel that they are the center of the world. Certainly the rest of the world won't treat them that way. They should feel that they are an important part of the family and view their role as being supportive and cooperative to make things work in the family. This is not "John Flavell the developmental psychologist" speaking but my own personal opinion.

(While pursuing a graduate education at the Stanford university School of education as well as at the Department of Statistics, Deepa Rai worked at Bing Nursery School as a Teaching Assistant in East Room AM [1982-83] and then as the Research Coordinator [1983-85] .)