Published on Psychology Today
When my son Edwin was around the age of 3, he would often say, “Mommy remember yesterday when I was a baby?” In fact, he referred to anything that happened in the past as yesterday. My second son Charlie was no different. He would say things like “remember when we went to grandma’s house yesterday and had a sleep over,” referring to something that happened weeks or months ago. My kids are 5 and 8 now, and they have a better understanding of time, but I still hear other kids say similar things. At his birthday party just this weekend, one of Charlie’s classmates said to his mom, “remember when we came here yesterday?” His mom looked at him and said, “Yes I do!” while mouthing to me “That wasn’t yesterday”. I could relate.
Understanding time is really hard for kids. First of all, time is an abstract concept, which is difficult for young children, especially before the preschool years. Thinking about the future, for example, involves thinking about events that haven’t happened yet, and to some extent, reasoning about events that could, versus could not potentially happen at all. While thinking about the past is a bit more concrete, it relies on children’s memory capacities which are still developing over the course of early childhood.
Thinking about time is also related to children’s language competence. In most languages, time is embedded in the tense we use (past, present, or future). A sentence like “I’m at the zoo,” has a different meaning than “I’m going to the zoo,” or “I went to the zoo.” In these statements, we can get a sense of time based on the kind of verb we use. However, time can also be expressed with nouns like today, tomorrow, or yesterday, or by using prepositions like before and after.
On top of expressing time through language, time can also be expressed in terms of specific dates, or in numbers. As such, thinking about time can involve mathematical reasoning, as in the relation between one minute and one hour, one day, one month, or one year.
When do children begin to understand time? Given its complexity, it’s not surprising that children’s understanding of time begins to develop in the early preschool years and continues into middle childhood. For example, children begin using words like yesterday and tomorrow by ages 2 or 3, typically starting with today, then moving on to tomorrow, and finally yesterday (Zhang & Hudson, 2018). But that doesn’t mean that children always use these terms correctly. Like in the case of my sons and their friend, at first, yesterday might just represent anything that happened in the past, while tomorrow might represent anything that’s going to happen in the future.
Indeed, research suggests that in the early preschool years, children can understand events that happened in the past or future in only a general way. For example, in one study, 3- to 5-year-old children saw two photographs of an object that were different in terms of when they were taken, like a whole pumpkin versus a carved pumpkin. Their task was to match the photos with sentences like “I carved the pumpkin yesterday” or “I’m gonna carve the pumpkin tomorrow.” Preschoolers did fairly well with the task, but they seemed to fare better with the past than the future (Zhang & Hudson, 2018).
Around the same age, children show that they can understand certain routines that happen predictably at different times during the day. For example, they understand that waking up and eating breakfast happens in the morning, that lunch happens in the middle of the day, and that dinner and bedtime happen at night (although my 5-year-old still calls breakfast lunch, and lunch dinner from time to time).
Between the ages of 6 and 8, children start to figure out how to use specific dates, but the development of this skill takes a while. In one study, researchers reported that US children from kindergarten to 6th grade could put some photos in order of when they appeared historically, but the actual dates when these events occurred had very little meaning for kids before the third grade, and it wasn’t until the 5th grade that kids could connect specific dates with particular events (Barton & Levstik, 1996). By ages 9 to 11, children can understand periods in history, and seem to have a fully developed ability to reason about time on an abstract level (Vukelich & Thornton, 1990).
You might be asking, who cares? Unfortunately for parents, children’s understanding of time (or lack thereof) does impact their behavior in important (albeit annoying) ways. For example, given their inability to understand the mathematics of time, telling them they have one minute, or 5 minutes before cleanup or bedtime could be essentially meaningless to children, and ultimately infuriating for adults. Children also have trouble planning ahead or making reasonable predictions about how much time it might take to do something, as any parent who’s tried to get their kids out of the house and into the car knows very well. Further, children under the ages of 6 or 7 don’t reflect well on their previous mistakes or use them to plan better behavior for the future (O’Connor et al., 2012), which means you may not always get long-term remorse for past misbehaviors.
The good news is that children’s ability to understand time gets better with age, and education. As they get older, your child will be better able to grasp abstract concepts and reason about the future. As they learn about numbers and counting, children’s ability to understand what “one minute till bedtime” means will also improve. At some point, they’ll be able to reflect on things that happened in the past and use those experiences to reason about the future, and maybe even say “I’m sorry” now and again. Don’t worry, they will all get there, it just takes time.
Photo: Flickr/Nenad Stojkovic
Barton, K. C., & Levstik, L. S. (1996). “Back when God was around and everything”: Elementary children’s understanding of historical time. American educational research journal, 33(2), 419-454.
O’Connor, E., McCormack, T., & Feeney, A. (2012). The development of regret. Journal of experimental child psychology, 111(1), 120-127.
Vukelich, R., & Thornton, S. J. (1990). Children's understanding of historical time: implications for Instruction. Childhood Education, 67(1), 22-25.
Zhang, M., & Hudson, J. A. (2018). Children’s understanding of yesterday and tomorrow. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 170, 107-133.