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updated: 7/15/2012 7:25 AM

Remember, a kid is still a kid when it comes to communicating

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First in a series

It isn't easy being somebody's kid.

We parents require a lot of on-the-job-training, and our children need a good deal of patience and understanding as they teach us to parent effectively.

My daughter Amy has had a never-ending supply of tolerance and sympathy for her father's sometimes fumbling efforts. One of my favorite parenting memories is of my less-than-successful attempts to explain something a number of years ago. It was the day of Amy's first solo bike ride down to the end of the block; previously I'd always run along with her.

In light of the possible hazards for 5-year-old bicyclists -- stray dogs, strangers, hostile kids, flat tires, potholes, etc. -- I decided to give Amy a whistle to blow in case she needed her dad to come running. Realizing that a whistle is an enticing toy and that the sight of her father sprinting down the sidewalk might likewise be tempting, I decided to impress upon Amy the need to use her "alarm" responsibly.

To do so, I fell back on one of those time-honored tools of parenting: "The Story of the Boy Who Cried Wolf." You remember. A young shepherd repeatedly sounds a false alarm, crying "Wolf! Wolf!" to test his elders' response. Ironically, when a wolf does threaten his flock, the irritated older men ignore the boy's cry for help, with disastrous consequences.

Now, with the "wisdom" of an aware parent, I told Amy the story in simple language, downplaying any violence, and then related it to her use of the whistle. She nodded her head in solemn understanding and set off on her journey.

As I had expected, it was not long before I heard the alarm. Amy had gotten her bike stuck in a large hole and was unable to get it out. I set off at a slow jog toward her. Amy apparently was concerned that I might be overly worried, and she also wanted to impress me with her understanding of my little pre-biking talk.

When I got within hailing distance, she cupped her hands to her mouth and shouted reassuringly, "It's OK, Dad! It's not a wolf!" So much for parental wisdom.

This story (now one of Amy's favorite "isn't Dad silly" tales) always reminds me of a difficult lesson we parents have to learn: Kids don't think like adults, no matter how precocious they seem. It is tempting for parents to assume that once our children acquire the verbal skills to carry on an intelligent conversation, we can begin to relate to them as though they also can think intelligently.

We have enjoyed the protecting, nurturing role we have played as parents but also look forward to experiencing children as maturing companions, perhaps even friends. Such an expanding relationship is a natural part of being parent and child. It can be rewarding for all involved.

However, it does need to develop slowly and with awareness of our children's developmental limitations. A child's ability to make insightful connections, reason logically, explore possibilities, judge the passage of time or consider moral issues develops slowly.

For a child, fantasy may be as "real" as reality, truth and falsehood meaningless distinctions, and "magic" the explanation for most of life's happenings. Children can see themselves as both all-powerful and frighteningly helpless. These limitations and misconceptions fade away only with the passage of time.

It is not until the early teen years, in fact, that our children are on the threshold of adult thinking. No matter how mature children's words seem to be, their underlying thinking is limited by their developmental age.

Again, that means we have to be cautious in our assumptions about the depth of our children's understanding of our conversations. We don't have to consult a child psychologist to know where our kids are coming from, either. With a little insightful listening, we can get a good sense for ourselves. As we listen, we will soon realize our children's developmental limits.

My experience with my daughter is a good example. Though Amy possessed the verbal skills to accurately hear the words I spoke, and could even comprehend the details and development of the tale I told her, she was not able to understand my little talk as an attempted lesson about being responsible. That was simply beyond her development.

I would have been better off starting out telling her exactly when to call me -- a flat tire, a stray dog, and so on -- and then working with her situation by situation to help her refine her understanding of my meaning.

We parents, then, need to walk that fine line between expecting too much, or too little, from our children. A 7-year-old can't set his own curfew; an 18-year-old probably can. A 1-year-old doesn't have the muscle control or understanding to be potty-trained, but a 3-year-old will have a good chance. A 4-year-old sees the real world and her fantasy world as equally real; an 11-year-old may enjoy fantasy but has a fairly good sense of what is real as well.

Actually, Amy never sounded her alarm without good reason. Her restraint was probably a matter of trusting that I will come when called and enjoying her independence. My attempt at moral instruction was not only futile, it was unnecessary. Amy was perfectly able to behave appropriately for her own reasons -- those of a 5-year-old.

Next week, we'll continue talking about child development as we take a look at answering kids' tough questions.