Has this ever happened to you? You went far and away out of your way to get something special for someone. You thought you knew exactly what would make them happy and you did your best to deliver. You planned and sacrificed. When the moment came, they responded flatly, without excitement. The other person was grateful but not dazzled. You missed it. In those situations, I can end up feeling disappointed and distant. In my less charitable moments, I feel frustrated by the other person’s failure to appreciate all the trouble I went to.

With children we often miss the mark. I decided last spring to plan a special weekday dinner plan. We had visitors and half the family was going out to a Red Sock’s game. I wanted to make it nice for the younger kids, who were not going on this particular trip. When the day came, however, all sorts of things derailed my plans. Time ran short and I was madly trying to find a new fun and special plan for my girls. I offered a new plan to the girls and the whining began. “I wanted . . . What about . . . It isn’t fair . . .” The girls made it pretty clear that they were not happy. I felt trapped. I wasn’t going to make them happy. I also felt angry.

Looking back, the problem was that I had other agendas besides making them happy. I had ideas about a reasonable dinner and schedules. I had an awareness of the next day, my preferences, and those of my visiting mother-in-law. I also did not want to be uncomfortable (one of the ideas that appealed to the girls was to eat outside in the bug populated and wet park). I wanted them to understand why I wouldn’t give them what they wanted. I also wanted them to like it.

Do children understand what we want and like? Can they respond to it? It turns out they do understand and they will respond to that information. They just might be smarter than we. Check these results:

A team of researchers lead by Alison Gopnik studied what very young children know about others wishes and preferences. They asked: Can toddlers understand differences in preference and can they modify their behavior to the situation? Babies around 1 and 1/2 years old were given the opportunity to offer a food to an adult. The baby was allowed to taste the two foods. Whatever food the baby ate more of was presumed to be baby’s preference. The adult then tasted the foods and displayed her preference by making a face of disgust or pleasure. For the experiment, researchers made assigned displays of emotion — showing systematic preferences or disgust for broccoli or crackers. The babies were next asked to hand the adult some food. Babies did not offer the “better” food: crackers, as they saw it. Babies offered the adult’s preference – even when the adult showed a preference for broccoli, which was opposite almost all babies. There really was a kid who preferred broccoli.

So what does that mean? The lead researcher was interviewed recently about her research program and what her findings meant to her. You can read the interview here.

What else might it mean? Children are learning all the time to validate the ideas and feelings of other people. Adults often get distracted when they try to show that they understand the child’s perspective. We want children to be happy with the way that we have resolved our conflicting desires. We want them to feel differently than they feel. News flash: children will not have positive feelings about our compromises until they are teenagers — and then only sometimes. Desire is desire. Preference is preference and kids get it very young. Multiple demands and balancing priorities requires at least an adolescent brain and many adult experiences.

No one will really feel good about being told how to feel. We feel what we feel. Often we feel things we wish we did not feel. When we tell someone how we are feeling, we don’t want to hear how we should feel. We usually don’t want to be told how to feel better. We want to know that someone gets our feelings. We want to be heard first. If we want help to feel differently — we usually ask for that. The ability to validate another person’s perspective is so important to preventing and managing conflict.

Teach carefully. Pay attention to telling children that you are giving them what they want. Make sure that is the truth because they understand preferences. I am not willing to give my children everything they want. I do not think that is wise or helpful. My point is if you tell them they can have what they want then mean it. Take care not to tell them that they want what you want. Too many experiences like that and your children will think you aren’t so smart and you cannot be trusted.

The original study was published in Developmental Psychology, Vol. 33 (1) in 1997 by Alison Gopnik and Betty M Repacholi.