Inside The Secret Mind of a 3-year-old: Why they defy you even though they know better and how to handle it with one magic tool







The difference between 2-year-old defiance and 3-year-old defiance is that smirk.

That twinkle in their eye, the thrill of knowing better, but still doing it anyway.

That irresistible urge to flex their newfound power of assertiveness, the realization that they have power too — the knowledge that their reactions can cause a big reaction in you.

You know what I’m talking about right?

You’ve seen that twinkle in their eyes and that smirk — you know the one that makes think that your 2-year-old learning the word “no” and saying it over and over was, well, cute.

I remember looking at my son and seeing that streak of defiant independence and the psychologist part of me feeling proud he was such a strong, determined little guy while the parent part of me wanted to scream or cry or maybe both.

I remember how I felt. I felt like he did it on purpose, just to upset me!! I felt like he knew better. Why was he doing this!?!

Here’s the thing…

Three-year old’s do know better, yet they don’t. 

That knowing look your 3-year-old gives you after doing something that they know better not to do — well, it’s not nearly as sophisticated as it seems.

Three-year-olds are still very immature both emotionally and cognitively. In the research world, 3-year-olds are known as having perfectly logical, yet completely irrational thought.

They think in terms of logical steps yet they are unable to apply that logic.

Couple that with the newfound sense of self and egocentric-thought and you have the perfect recipe for defiance.

To understand this, we have to delve a little into the mind of a 3-year-old and what you’ll learn will literally amaze you.

Inside The Secret Mind of a 3-year-old

The Difference Between Knowing and Doing

There are a lot of studies out there on the mind of a 3-year-old and how they think because it is a fascinating stage of development. Jean Piaget called this the pre-operational stage of thinking — or the stage before mental operations function smoothly. In other words, pre-logical. 

Preschoolers are very active thinkers, but their thinking is also rigid and limited.

There is one experiment that researchers do with three-year-olds that illustrates this perfectly, it is the Dimensional Change Card Sort (DCCS) developed by Dr. Philip Zelazo.

Here is how it works:

Children are told they are going to play the “color game.” They are shown some cards that are red and some that are blue. The cards have pictures of trucks and flowers. The children are asked to sort the cards by color.

The red cards go in one pile and the blue in another.

The children do this pretty well.

Then the rule changes:

The researcher tells the child, “Now we will play the shape game. In the shape game, the trucks go here and the flowers go here.”

The child is given a picture of a red truck. The card sorting container has a picture of a blue truck. A 3-year-old will mistakenly continue to sort by color, not by shape.

They will put the picture of the red truck in the container with the red flower — sorting by color.

The researcher will try again.

They ask the child Where do the trucks go?”  The three-year-old points to the container with the red truck.

The researcher asks “Where do the flowers go?” The three-year-old points to the container with the blue flower.

The researcher says “Here is a red flower” and hands the child the card.

Where do you think they put it?


The 3-year-old learned the game as a color-sorting game. They sorted the cards by color first. They understand the rules have changed. They can point to where a truck should go — but when that truck is a different color they can’t do it. They will continue to sort by color alone.

The same thing happens if you start with shape game. When you change to the color game they will only sort by shape.

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