Academic journal article Australian Journal of Early Childhood

`He Must Have Disguised': Harry the Dirty Dog and Children's Thinking about Thinking

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Early Childhood

`He Must Have Disguised': Harry the Dirty Dog and Children's Thinking about Thinking

Article excerpt

An important development for young children is the ability to understand how mental states influence actions. When children develop this understanding they are able to reason about people homing beliefs which do not correspond with reality. Such false belief understanding is presented in the story Harry the Dirty Dog, and it is important to understand this reasoning to access the humorous meanings intended in the story. In this study children were questioned about the false belief actions in the story Harry the Dirty Dog. More older children than younger children were able to demonstrate their understanding of false belief, suggesting that not all children are understanding the book in the manner assumed by most adults.


Harry was a white dog with black spots who got very dirty and looked like a black dog with white spots. When Harry went home his family did not recognise him, and thought he was a different dog. Harry tried to show his family that he was Harry but the family still believed it could not be him. Finally Harry jumped in the bath and let his family wash him. As the family washed Harry he changed back to a white dog with black spots. Only when Harry changed did his family realise who the dog really was (Zion, 1992).

The above summary from the book Harry the Dirty Dog illustrates how beliefs guide human actions. While Harry appeared to be a black dog with white spots, he really was a white dog with black spots. But because Harry looked different his family believed he was a different dog and treated him as such. Hence, his family held a false belief--a belief which was inconsistent with reality.

As humans we try to understand why people act the way they do by using our knowledge of what people think, believe, and feel (Astington, 1994). Just as we cannot understand the physical world without considering space and time, individuals cannot understand the social world without an awareness of the mental states which form the inner self (Berk, 1997). By understanding how mental states--such as thoughts, beliefs and desires--influence actions, humans are able to predict and explain everyday behaviours. Hence, the mind is the sum of our mental states; it interprets reality and represents these interpretations through mental states (Astington, 1994).

Many studies concerning children's understandings of the mind have focused on when such an understanding develops (e.g. Wellman, 1990), rather than exploring the relationships such understandings have with other social-cognitive abilities. Because an understanding of mind is necessary for successful interactions with other individuals it has important social implications, with the context and relationships children engage in appearing to influence the understandings they demonstrate. For example, a relationship has been identified between children's understandings of the mind and peer popularity (Dockett, Szarkowicz, Petrovski, Degotardi & Rovers, 1997); children with siblings have been found to perform better than only children on tasks concerning mentality (Jenkins & Astington, 1996), and the family context has been identified as being important for talk about mental states (Dunn, 1994). The suggested importance of context is supported by research which has identified young children demonstrating an understanding of false belief when provided with an appropriate context (Szarkowicz, 1999/1998). In a series of studies, Szarkowicz presented children with either a book or video version of false belief behaviours involving the children's television characters Bananas in Pyjamas. More children who watched the video demonstrated an understanding of false belief than did those who shared the book. Hence, the medium through which children experienced the false belief actions appeared to influence their demonstration of understanding.

However, much experimental research suggests that children under approximately four years of age think everybody shares the same mental states, and hence do not have an understanding of false beliefs (e. …

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