Are Children Really Like a Blank Sheet of Paper?

Do children possess any knowledge at birth? Does their learning depend on experiences and nurture? We'll analyze whether children are really like a blank sheet of paper or not.
Are Children Really Like a Blank Sheet of Paper?

Last update: 02 May, 2021

Surely, at some point, you’ve heard the expression that children are like a blank sheet of paper. That their minds are totally clean and they become what they are based on their environment. However, do you know where this statement comes from? And is it really true?

If so, we adults would bear the great opportunity and responsibility of molding our little ones. We could turn them into talented, good, and happy people. Or, if we did a bad job, our children would be deprived, fearful, selfish, and unhappy. Let’s look at what the evidence has to say about this issue.

The tabula rasa

This idea comes from the philosopher John Locke, who affirms that human beings come into existence without any knowledge. At birth, our minds are a blank slate, like a blank sheet of paper on which nothing’s been written.

According to the author, we acquire all knowledge through experience. From our experiences, we form concepts and associations, which shape the person we will become.

Locke based his arguments on the great differences that exist between different cultures of the world. As well as the fact that babies don’t know even the simplest words and don’t recognize the most basic dangers, such as fire. There doesn’t seem to be any preexisting knowledge prior to experience.

Are Children Really Like a Blank Sheet of Paper?


Children aren’t like a blank sheet of paper

However, experts have since disproved the tabula rasa theory, at least partially. Today, we know that children are born with certain instincts, traits, and genetic predispositions. Some of these traits are the following:

  • Babies are able to recognize an object they’ve seen from touch. That is, they can establish an association between the visual image and tactile information.
  • Newborns have a predisposition to react and pay attention to the faces of members of their own species. Even without having the necessary experience to recognize the features that distinguish us from other animals, they innately detect and orient themselves towards other human beings.
  • Temperament is an innate and unmodifiable element that accompanies the child from the beginning and is easily recognizable in the first months of life. It refers to the degree to which the child tends to be open or fearful of the world – their tendency to explore or to be cautious.
  • To a high degree, genetics determine the predisposition to excel in an activity or to show a natural talent. In fact, genetics determine 50% of a person’s cognitive abilities.

Thus, the hypothesis that the minds of little ones come into the world completely empty has been disproved. We’re all born with certain genetically inherited equipment that makes it easier for us to understand the rules of the world and to adapt to it more effectively.

Just the same, the environment is crucial

But this doesn’t mean that the personality and destiny of children are completely predetermined. Parenting and parental action play a truly significant role that can make all the difference. Let’s remember that, ultimately, children will be the product of the interaction between genetics and the education received in their environment.

Are Children Really Like a Blank Sheet of Paper?

For example, being born with an inhibited or fearful temperament doesn’t mean that the child will suffer from anxiety or social difficulties, it’s only a predisposition.

If parents provide the child with the right tools and opportunities, they’ll be able to counteract or compensate for this tendency. As a result, the child will grow up with greater confidence and openness than was determined by their innate condition.

So, let’s try to see what’s written on our little ones’ paper not as a limitation, but as a starting point. Knowing their innate strengths, qualities, and programming will help us to act in the best way to take advantage of them. Likewise, we’ll know where our intervention is most needed.

So, are children like a blank sheet of paper?

Nurture, environment, and early experiences can really make a difference. So, although children aren’t like a blank sheet of paper, your love, care, and education are very relevant.

Every second you invest in your child’s education will be rewarded. You’ll be helping them to develop their abilities in the best possible way and you’ll be building their happiness. They may not be a blank sheet of paper, but there are many lines that will depend on what you write.

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  • Bushnell, I. W. R. (2001). Mother’s face recognition in newborn infants: Learning and memory. Infant and Child Development: An International Journal of Research and Practice10(1‐2), 67-74.
  • MARTÍNEZ, Á. I. (2002). Temperamento, carácter personalidad. Una aproximación a su concepto e interacción. Revista Complutense de Educación13(2), 617-643.