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Kids get so excited to meet their favorite characters in real life, but studies show they might not really believe the the princess they met at a theme park is actually the cartoon character.

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If you're in Minnesota, go to to learn more. [ ♪ Intro ]. Life can be pretty confusing if you're a kid.

Like, you thought Elsa was just a cartoon on the tv screen in Frozen, but then your parents took you to Disney World, and there she is! Are you just supposed to believe this person claiming to be Elsa is the real McCoy, and if so, does she have the same magical powers? And what's she doing in decidedly-not-frozen Florida?

It's easy to think of young kids as being… dumber than adults. Meaning maybe it's easy to trick them into thinking fantastical things about the world. But studies show that they're more sophisticated than you might guess.

The way their minds develop is more complex than just “dumb version of adult gets less dumb over time.” In fact, studies show that they may be able to grasp more intricate ideas earlier than many adults would assume, with the right guidance. To understand the ways children can be tricked into thinking fantastical things, we need to know how they learn what other people are thinking as they grow up. And developmental psychologists are very interested in the changes that happen in most kids between the ages of three and five.

One of the ways psychologists have studied this is with something called a false belief task, in which researchers induce a false belief in children, then reveal the truth. For example, they might fill a candy box with pencils. They show kids the box, then reveal the pencils and ask kids what they thought was in there.

But when you show them the pencils inside, the kids explain their confusion in different ways. An early study, published in 1988 in Child Development, used a couple versions of this task, including the candy box and a sponge painted to look like a rock. Across two experiments, 34 five-year-olds generally had no problem saying they were wrong initially, for example, they thought the box had candy in it.

But when 34 three-year-olds were asked what they thought was inside the box before it was opened, they were more likely to say… pencils. As if they had always thought that. And if you ask them what another child who wasn't in the room would think, someone who didn't see the box opened, three-year-olds were more likely to say that the other kid would think it was pencils, too.

It's almost like for a three-year-old, knowledge they have is all the knowledge there is. Even what they themselves used to think, that there was candy in the box, doesn't count. But by the time you're five, you start to realize that people can have different levels of knowledge, and that things like a misleading label can trick them.

This understanding is what psychologists call theory of mind. In part, it's the understanding that other people have other minds that are filled with different ideas. Theory of mind may differ in some people, such as those on the autism spectrum, but it's helpful for understanding how our minds mature in general.

And we're starting to see that that might happen earlier than we used to think. Experiments published in 2013 showed that kids as young as three can pass the false belief test, if you modify it a little. The researchers introduced kids to a doll who just loves bananas.

The experimenter would put some toy bananas in a toy fridge, then make the doll go for a walk. Then, with the child watching, they'd sneakily switch the bananas to a different toy fridge. When the doll got back from her walk, the experimenter would ask the child what would happen next. 20 out of 25 children, aged between three and four, guessed that the doll would look for a banana in the wrong place, even though far fewer of them passed the more standard candy box version of the task.

So maybe kids understand false beliefs earlier than we thought, and can communicate that fact, given the means and the right framing. And if you give them the option of saying they're not sure, it becomes clearer that they're learning. A study published in 2004 tested this by asking 64 kids about real and fantasy creatures, including some examples that were specific, like Santa Claus, and some more generic, like "a monster," or "a fairy." And then they asked a variety of questions about them, like, "do they dream?" "do they get older every year?" and the oh-so-important, "can they travel the world in one night?" Finally, they asked the kids to sort all the creatures into three piles: things that were definitely real, things that were just pretend, and things they weren't sure about.

Three-year-olds in the study sorted things kind of randomly, their accuracy wasn't any different from chance overall. Both four- and five-year-olds were better at telling the imaginary entities from the real ones, though yes, Virginia, they did believe in Santa Claus. Which, the researchers pointed out, is a belief that many parents encourage.

And the kids made a lot of use of the “not sure” option, suggesting they were genuinely unsure, rather than incorrectly believing monsters are real. And both four- and five-year-olds said that the human-like traits, things like dreaming and getting older every year, were more likely to be true of the real entities than the imaginary ones. The five-year-olds in particular were nearly identical to adults in their answers.

All of this suggests that kids this age were better than previously believed at navigating the distinction between what's real and what's not. And sometimes, even if kids tell you they believe something pretend is real, they still might not behave as if they do. Like when researchers in 1994 asked 42 kids to imagine an object, such as a pencil, being in a box.

They were asked for details like what color the pencil was, and whether it was really in there, to which about a quarter of four- and five-year-olds said, yes. But then, when another researcher came into the room and said they needed a pencil to do some work, almost none of them volunteered the pencil they said they believed was in the box. Even the three-year-olds, of whom a third said their imaginary pencil actually existed, mostly didn't volunteer it to help.

Almost all the kids would offer a real pencil they knew was there. Kids are helpful that way. They just didn't volunteer the pretend one.

So next time you run into a kid who's excited to go meet Elsa, keep in mind that research shows they might not really believe she's real, and they're just enjoying playing pretend. That kid likely knows there are some things about Elsa that aren't the same as real people, or might not expect her to use her powers to help if they were in trouble. But if nothing else, kids are more sophisticated and less gullible than you might guess.

They just might need a little more explaining, or the right kind of question, to know what they know. When you're a parent, it seems like everyone has a different idea of what it means to take good care of your kid. But one way you can definitely do it is to make sure they see a doctor regularly.

Annual check-ups help catch potential problems early on when they can be most easily dealt with. And kids' bodies and brains are constantly changing, so it's especially helpful to stay up to date on their health. And the good news is, if you have a kid, you might be eligible to get this kind of appointment for free!

If you live in Minnesota, you can learn more at And if you don't, you can click the link in the description to learn what kind of benefits might be available for you and your family. In Minnesota alone, over 500,000 kids are eligible for these check-ups, where their doctor will check out their hearing, vision, teeth, and other health details depending on their age.

And that's the kind of information that always helps you and your child live healthier, happier lives. [ ♪ Outro ].