Kids Don’t Understand Time—Doh!

You hear moms say it to their kids at the park all the time: “Five minute warning!” We think we’re being highly communicative, reasonable, considerate people by giving our kids a heads’ up that playground time is almost over. But guess what? As any mom who’s dealt with a exit meltdown knows, it means almost nothing to our little ones.

According to a new study, kids don’t really understand the concepts of time until age 7. That’s first grade. By age four, they might begin realizing that a minute is longer than an hour. But only sometimes, and c’mon, even as adults we all know how relative time can feel. Imagine you’re three again and you’re anxiously waiting for Santa to come, or for a friend to come over for a playdate. We can tell our kids how many days or hours it will be. But your words and explanations just won’t cut it.

That’s part of the magic of childhood, right? Left to their own devices, kids wouldn’t schedule anything. They’d just play, and eat when they’re hungry, and nap when they felt tired. It’s a fantastic way to be. Except for the tiny little fact that it’s completely at odds with how most of us live now. We have schedules to keep!

So how are we supposed to give fair warning that it’s almost time to leave, or to help our little ones understand how much longer until Grandma comes for a visit? As usual, the researchers don’t go there. As a mom of a preschooler, I’ve made calendars showing my son’s daily schedule and tried setting the timer to indicate our next move. I give the essentially meaningless five-minute warnings. Sometimes we have luck with these things.

But more often than not, they don’t do much. And at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter that much. We’re never that late. Since we’re generally meeting other families, we’re all running on about the same clock, which is to say ten minutes late. But to the kids? We might as well be early.