The Scientific Reason Why Kids Suck At Hide And Seek

by ParentCo. March 02, 2017

happy girl covering her face with hands

The first time I played hide-and-go-seek with my son, he put a dish towel on his head and said he was ready. That was his whole hiding spot. He didn’t duck behind a door or anything – he just put a towel on his head and figured I’d never find him. It’s amazing how confident he was about it. He openly taunted and laughed at me, saying, “You can’t find me!” He was so sure that standing in front of me with a dish towel on his head made him invisible that he wasn’t even worried about how much noise he was making. It’s one of those weird developmental things we just take for granted. We all know our kids suck and hide-and-go-seek, but have you ever wondered why? Believe it or not, there are people who have dedicated their whole lives to that question. About 100 years of science have gone into figuring out why kids think standing behind a potted plant makes them invisible – and it’s still a work in progress. A new discovery, though, suggests the reason kids are bad at hide-and-go-seek may be deeper than we think.

It’s not that kids are egocentric

It was once thought that the problem was egocentrism. Young kids don’t fully understand that other people see the world from another perspective. That was why they didn’t get that their hide-and-seek spots were so awful. Kids, it was believed, were working off the assumption that, if they couldn’t see something, neither could anyone else. As it turns out, though, that’s not completely true. By the time kids are two, they start to understand that other people see different things. That means our kids know we’re looking for them and that we have our own eyes – so why do they think it’s so easy to turn invisible? As it turns out, it’s something a bit more complex.

Kids Will Say Blindfolded People Are Invisible

Here’s a fun experiment to try out on your kids. Cover your child’s eyes, and then ask them, “My eyes are open and I’m looking at you. Can I see you?” If your child is under 5 years old, odds are they’ll say, “No.” This has been demonstrated in experiments – but it gets a bit weirder. It’s not just that kids think they go invisible when their eyes are covered, they think it works for everyone. One study put blindfolds on toy dolls and asked kids if they could see the dolls. Almost every child, when the blindfold was on the doll, was pretty sure the doll had gone invisible.

Unless kids see faces, they insist they can’t see the person

Another experiment broke it down in more detail. If you peek your head over the couch, your kids will see you – but not if your peek your feet out. Most kids believe if you can see someone’s legs but not their face, then you can’t see them. They might even admit they can see their legs, but they don’t admit they can see the person. For kids, it seems, the face is the person. When you cover your face, even though the rest of you is there, they actually think you’ve disappeared – or, at least, that’s how they word it. So, until you make eye contact with your child, he really thinks you can’t see him – even if all he’s done is put a box on his head.

It works for voices too

A new study suggests this might go a bit further than we realize. One group of experimenters tried the same principle with sound. The researchers put their hands over their own ears and asked kids, “Can you hear me?” Then they put their hands over their own mouths and asked the kids, “Can you speak to me?” Surprisingly, a lot of the kids thought they couldn’t. In fact, about a third of the kids said that they couldn’t hear people who were covering their ears or speak to people who were covering their mouths. Exactly what this means is open to interpretation – but the people who did the study think it means kids go through a phase where they only recognize socializing as a shared experience. Around the ages of three and four, the writers state, kids stop seeing the world as something only they perceive and start seeing it as an experience shared between two people. Which is kind of a sweet thought. It means that, when your children think you can’t see them behind the curtains, it’s not because they’re full of themselves. For your children, reality only exists when you share it with them.



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