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A few days ago I was watching a circus show with my almost 3-year-old daughter. There was a guy who was doing some pirouettes on a horizontal bar: he would turn several times in a row and then stop to make some jokes.

After a while, and since he was also a comedian, they put a mattress on the floor so he could fall on it. And this is what happened: for us adults it was clear that he would turn and turn and, in a certain moment, release from the bar and fall on the mattress as if he had fallen down. Also, he would walk a bit on the bar and then pretend he slid and fall on the mattress again.

All of this was funny and they (him and his assistant) were making funny faces. However, the subtleties of the joke were not clear at all to my daughter, who started to feel very anxious and helpless.

I explained to her that it was a joke and walked her to the side of the stage to show how big the mattress was, and how he was not hurting himself at all when falling on it. However, none of this helped and she kept feeling very sorry for the man. I decided to just move out for a while and come back when the show was over, to see how the man was smiling and feeling perfectly safe.

In any case, what remained interesting to me was the fact itself: She felt empathy (something they gain when they are around 3 years old). But how can a toddler infer in such situations that things are just a joke? I see itself as a kind of irony, which is something that a kid just starts understanding when a bit older (5-6 years old?).

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  • Is this their first exposure to pratfalls? The toddlers I've known have had an opposite assumption; getting confused when people are serious about an adult falling unintentionally. – user26011 Jul 9 '18 at 16:52
  • @notstoreboughtdirt yes, it was her first exposure to this. We don't use TV and she just watches some children's cartoons that, so far, did never show such situations – fedorqui Jul 10 '18 at 9:30
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You're asking when a child develops the ability to understand that a pretend action is not a real action. This ability typically develops around their third year, so your daughter is probably around the point where she'll develop it. For example, in this excellent article on pretend play:

At least by age 4, and probably younger, children can explicitly report that what happens in the context of a pretend game is not real.

The article continues to discuss that, even when children do appear to confuse pretend for reality, it's often due to "emotional contagion" (i.e., an emotional reaction, often due to believing they should have that reaction from other children and/or stories):

There are occasional instances when children may react to pretend events as though they were real, as when children are genuinely afraid of monsters under their beds. Although such instances have led parents and some researchers to worry that children do not appreciate the difference between pretence and reality, these appear to be largely issues of emotional contagion rather than a general metaphysical confusion.

This isn't exactly the same as what you're describing (seeing another pretending, versus pretending themselves), but this is part of the mental gymnastics required.

Another important element is that children need experience to differentiate between actual happenings and pretend. Scholastic's article Ages and Stages discusses this in their 3-4 year old section:

Other aspects of preschoolers' thinking are similarly magical and often quite delightful. Because of their lack of experience, young children often take things quite literally. Sara was astonished when her big sister told her, "I don't like eggplant. It makes my stomach turn over." When Sara's mom said, "Now I'm in hot water. I forgot your permission slip for the field trip," Sara thought this was pretty silly, because her mom certainly wasn't standing in any hot water. And when Sara's teacher said she was "tickled pink" over her birthday card, Sara kept watching her face to see it turn color.

The children learn about humor, and similarly about words that don't actually mean what they sound like, only through experience.

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  • Excellent! Thanks a lot for providing such insight. I will keep an eye on this and see if it changes through the following months. – fedorqui Jul 11 '18 at 7:36
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Children learn the cues they are taught.

If every previous fall has been met with concern she will be expected to be concerned about falls.

If this isn't a direction you want her to go expose her to the fun of falling. A three year old probably can master games like ring-around-the-rosy, spin-til-you-fall-down, jump-into-[something soft], or organized pre-gymnastics which focus on safe and expected falls.

Many children develop a physical sense of humor more or less on their own shortly after learning how not to fall down because it gets a predictable response from their caregivers.

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    You state things (even though at times conditional, with "most") that I don't think are actually true, e.g. "If every previous fall has been met with concern she will be expected to be concerned about falls." I've seen kids brush off parental concerns with gleeful laughter, and though I did let my young kids 'fall' under safe conditions, I doubt they can recognize that in a clown act. You might consider adding sources to support personal opinions when stated unequivocally. – anongoodnurse Jul 14 '18 at 15:04

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