Sunday, October 18, 2009

Inside Voices

Happy Children Playing Kids

Time marches on. When I was a kid there was a television show in which the announcer, with a deep, dramatic voice, would say those words. And, since I was at the stage of concrete operations, I imagined Father Time literally marching down the street. Oops, there I go again, using psychological terms without defining them. Concrete operations is one of Jean Piaget's stages of development and it describes a period when the child's brain can't grasp abstract concepts. Instead, a child thinks literally and takes a phrase like "time marches on" to mean just what I thought.

Concrete thinking is normal in a child under the ages of twelve or thirteen. The reason for this is, the connections in the brain that make abstract thinking possible haven't developed until then. The brain takes time to grow just like everything else. As a result, when adults expect even exceptionally intelligent children to think like adults, it "ain't gonna happen." It's not a matter of rebellion or stubbornness, it's about biology. Mother Nature has her own timetable and no matter how many "A"s are on the report card, there are some things a child just can't understand.

This can be frustrating for parents who expect their children to grasp concepts they themselves assume to be obvious. The kid who runs out into the street after a stray frisbee may remember to "look both ways before crossing," but the idea that danger is waiting in the form of a passing car is an abstract one. "Don't you know that's dangerous?" goes right over the kid's head. But, to say, "You could get hit and that would hurt very, very badly -- worse than when you fell off your skateboard and cut yourself," makes much more sense to them.

Sometimes, concrete thinking persists into adulthood. When it's presented on stage, we call it comedy. Says one comedian, "Please, lower your voice." The other drops to his knees and says, "Is this low enough?" While most of the audience is laughing, a few are thinking, what's so funny? The children, of course, think it's hilarious and they'll repeat the routine to their parents for what seems like forever.

With adults, it can be a matter of education, genes, and social environment. With kids, it's primarily biology and parents do well to be patient. Our children grow up far too quickly in the normal course of things anyway. It cuts back on the stress if we can remember they're kids. Give them time. Eventually they'll get "the point" and stop wearing holes in the knees of their jeans while trying to use inside voices.

(GNU free documentation image via Wikipedia)
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