Understanding children

Scripps Howard News Service

Understanding is truly a gift. Being able to put oneself in someone else's place and understand someone's motivation, point of view and at least some of the reasons for his actions or words is an ability not many people have, especially when it comes to children.

I've always admired historical perspective, and I use it as a good analogy when working with difficult children. Historical perspective teaches so much about humanity that it's a good intellectual boot camp for parenthood.

Historical perspective exercises complex thought and increases imagination, but, most of all, it exercises a kind of basic human charity necessary to understand people who don't think as we do.

That's essentially how adults should go about understanding children. What does the child see and hear, and how has he made a connection? Does curiosity follow a child's discovery? Is he complex enough to understand? What is a child's basic point of view? What are a child's limitations regarding time and place?

If a curious adult thinks about children for five minutes, he will see clearly that until a child develops reason, which begins to emerge at age 3 and is able to hold court at age 6 or 7, he is a very primitive person lacking all the post-caveman human expectations, such as the reasons to keep himself clean, keep appointments such as bathroom, bedtime and dinner on his own and why mother's best lamp is not a great place to store Lego men.

Children don't think like adults, even though many adults demand that they do. Children's information banks are different and limited. Facts and news sorted out by a child's mind often lack the larger picture. It's like putting together a puzzle with a quarter of the parts. Children are lost on basic things such as the consistencies of routine that "we always do this at this time."

"What time?" asks the child, and he asks innocently.

Children don't often understand the reasons for punishment or reward when these things are delayed. It's either now or it isn't at all.

"What did you do that made Mommy angry?" A child may not have a clue. He will shrug his shoulders as if he's defiant, but if it happened more than five minutes earlier, he may have already forgotten.

Children don't understand the outcome of a deed, no matter how far-reaching. They understand fear and panic, but not the bigger picture. For example: "I only wanted to see how the lighter worked. I didn't want to burn the house down."

"But you did, Harry."

"Did what?"

"Burned the house down."

"I'm sorry, Mommy. Can we get another one?"

Working with the very young successfully means not assuming anything. It means starting each day as a new game and forgetting yesterday's game. He will.

Talk to children as often as you can about what the child is doing now. Save "why" questions for the grammar-school years. Young children don't know "why," and couldn't care less. And don't be surprised when children seem unresponsive to material needs. They place little value on material goods _ everything seems replaceable except you.

(Judy Lyden operates a pre-school in Evansville, Ind. Write to her c/o The Evansville Courier, P.O. Box 268, Evansville, IN 47702, or e-mail her at jlyden(at)evansville.net.)