IMG_5638  Dear Dr. B,

  In the baby's room we have
  three pigs. See pic left.
  Obviously none of them look
  anything alike. If we call all
  of these the same thing (pigs)
  when they look completely
  different, won't we just
  confuse her?

  Signed, Mommy Shorts

Dear Mommy Shorts,

Here's the long answer: As a baby's cognition develops, they build the capacity to create mental representations of knowledge. First a child may look at an image or object and learn that it is called a "pig". When they are able to develop a mental representation of a pig, they will think that all objects with similar defining characteristics are pigs. For instance, they may call all pink animals pigs or all animals with a snout a pig. This process is called assimilation. At the same time, people around the child will correct them and say, “No, that’s not a pig, it’s a pink bunny,” and the child’s pre-existing knowledge of the concept of "pig" changes to become restricted to only specific pink animals. This cognitive process is referred to as accommodation. Through the process of assimilation and accommodation, children begin to develop complex classification systems in their minds that help them better understand and articulate the world around them.

Here's what it boils down to: Practically speaking, you do not have to worry about confusing your child with all those odd looking pigs. Your child is more likely to think that all those odd looking pigs are pigs because their first instinct is to change their mental representation of a pig to fit what they see because they already have a name for it. Your job is to help them learn the difference between that odd looking pig and the odd looking pink round-shaped bunny.

Hope this helps!

—Dr. B