Michael Eriksson
A Swede in Germany
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Misconceptions in children

Introduction and meta information

In 2009, I wrote a very short page dealing with some misconceptions among children (remembered in myself and others from my childhood). Re-visiting the page in 2023, I find that these misconceptions usually go back to poor information from adults, e.g. teachers, parents, and TV edutainers, be it out of own ignorance, laziness, or as an example of “Lying to children”w. With an eye at the last, I note that the relatively low knowledge and intelligence levels of small children make them more vulnerable and that the practice is particularly harmful when children are involved. (As a counterpoint, children are also more likely to misunderstand quality information—adults are not to blame for everything.)

To make matters worse, many of these misconceptions, or misconceptions on a similar pattern, seem more common among adults, too, than they appeared to me at the time of the original version.

What follows below is a re-write with an eye at this new take. For the time being, I keep the old title, even though it is a worse fit than for the original version.

A small caveat is that I grew up in Sweden and encountered these issues in Swedish. I cannot guarantee that I have always picked appropriate translations.


At some point, I will likely discuss “Lying to children” in more detail on some other page. For now, I just note that I do not suggest that children (or adults) should always be given unabbreviated information and information with no simplification. The point is that they should be told that the information is potentially misleading and in what way.

Even in adult writings, I often see a categorical claim of X in one chapter of a book and a claim like “Remember when we said that X always holds? This is not quite true, because [...]”. How much better would it not have been to mention the existence of exceptions in advance, even if the details were left for a later chapter. Similarly, and absurdly, I have even seen single paragraphs containing versions of “Y is always Z. [Blah blah.] An exception is when [something or other].”—why not just say e.g. that “With rare exceptions, Y is always Z. [...]”? Indeed, on one truly horrifying occasion, someone went through the trouble of “With one exception”—only to follow it with “Another [sic!] exception is when [...]”.


When I was a child, I was given quite a few simplistic categorizations that, directly or indirectly, distorted my worldview. A particularly good example is a division of life-forms into animals (life-forms that move) and plants (life-forms that do not move).

However, there are a great many life-forms that do not fit into these two categories. I still remember my feeling of disbelief when first hearing that fungi were not plants—how could that be?


Viewed non-rhetorically, this question shows a common problem of giving misleading criteria when explaining categorizations: what defines these groupings, at least in today’s approach, is degree of common descent—not characteristics like “moves” and “does not move”.

Similarly, how could e.g. a Venus flytrap move? It was a plant—not an animal.

A sub-problem of simplistic categorizations is spurious opposites. For instance, at various times, I was told that sweet and salty were “opposite” tastes, that sweet and sour were “opposite” tastes, and that sweet and bitter were “opposite” tastes. This triple opposite troubled me even as a child, but only over time did I realize that the solution was a faulty categorization, where the idea of “opposite” simply does not make sense—sweet and salty (and sour, and bitter) are different tastes, but they are no more opposite than trousers and skirts.


The explanation might be that sugar could be used to counter an unpleasant degree of saltiness/sourness/bitterness, which brought on poor conclusions.

(Umami was not recognized in Sweden at the time, and I do not know how it would have been considered. However, the introduction of a “new” taste at so late a stage is another interesting example of categorization failures.)


Another early impression was that the “most X” of something has the trait of X to an extremely high degree: Seconds are so fleetingly short that they can barely be noticed, a millimeter is almost infinitely little, steel is harder than hard, ... While this is to some part the child’s fault, adult over-focus on the “X” worsens the issue (e.g. “a second is a very, very short time”), and misleading formulations do not help. For instance, a claim like “a second is our smallest unit of time” might or might not be technically true (depending on definitions and point of view), but is misleading if the common use of tenths (hundreds, thousands, whatnot) of a second is not mentioned.

The same idea also neatly explains some conflicts seen in my childhood: Children who have Batman as the hero will adamantly claim that he beats Superman, and vice versa. The one who, in personal perception, is the “hero-iest” will win—period.


As to “depending on definitions and point of view”, the second is the smallest “everyday” time unit with a name, but (a) there are units with derived names, e.g. “picosecond”, that are smaller or much smaller, (b) entirely different units exist, e.g. the Planck time.

Universality of e.g. habits

Too simple explanations, habits used without comment, terminology specific to a single family or shared with only a portion of other families, etc., can give a child an impression of universality that is not given.

For instance, I recall when I was maybe five years old, my family had dinner with another family, and I repeated the “thank you” formula my parents had told me to use after dinner: The children of the other family found it highly amusing, while I was consternated at their amusement.


This formula, “Tack för maten och kamraten.”–“Thanks for the food and the comrade.”, was indeed a bit odd, and probably had a whimsical background.

Note that the Swedish “kamrat” does not carry the strong communist connotations that the English “comrade” does, and that children often refer to each other as e.g. “lekkamrater”–“play comrades” or “skolkamrater”–“school comrades”—the English “mate”, “play mate”, etc., could come close.

Similarly, there was a split between families who ate the main meal of the day around midday and those who ate it early in the evening, which brought on at least one argument during my own first year in school, as both sides were convinced that their way was the correct one.

Other examples relate to Christmas traditions, weekend habits, how shoes were tied, whatnot.