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posted: 1/12/2014 6:00 AM

Don't assume children think, reason like we do

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Grocery stores are a great place to study people.

The other day I was winding through the aisles behind a young mother and her little girl, about 3 or so, who was sitting in the baby seat of the cart. As the shopping progressed, the child became more and more restive, squirming, whining, and grasping at anything that came within her reach.

As you'd expect, her mother became increasingly frustrated with her child. I could hear her saying things like: "I told you before we came that you'd have to behave." "Remember what happened last month when you pulled this?" "I know you're just doing this to get me angry; you're still mad that I didn't buy that toy yesterday."

The woman's increasingly loud reprimands had little effect except to confuse her daughter, who finally started crying in response to her mother's angry tone and expression. I wound up in a different checkout line, so didn't see the ending of this little drama, but I expect that it was not a happy one.

It's a common misperception: We assume our children think like we do. We believe that they remember what we say, that they learn from past mistakes, that they have complex motives for what they do, that they reason things out logically. And we respond to them as though all this were true.

The problem is, it's not. Kids' cognitive (i.e. thinking) abilities develop gradually just as do their physical abilities. Sure there will come a time when our children remember, learn, have hidden motives and think logically. But, for example, these dynamics are present in only a small degree (if at all), in the mind of a 3-year-old.

Our little girl in the grocery store does not recall what her mother said right before they left home, she was too excited about going out with Mommy. She likewise doesn't remember what happened last month during a similar trip (she hardly remembers what happened a few hours ago). Nor does she have some hidden motives (like getting even) behind her behavior; she just is bored and sees things she wants to hold. And reasoning out the consequences of her actions is something she is just beginning to be able to do. A 3-year-old thinks just like a 3-year-old.

So it goes throughout our children's development. An infant who is driving us nuts has no such intention, he is simply being an infant. A toddler who reaches for a hot stove probably has little conception of what the word "hot" means, but she may remember for a good while her burned finger. A 6-year-old who can recall perfectly the details of the TV show he just saw, but who can't seem to ever pick up his clothes off the floor, is just thinking like a 6-year-old. A teenager who tries to pull the wool over our eyes without thought to how it affects our trust of her is also just being a teenager.

Yes, children will be thoughtless, selfish, absent-minded, even deceitful at times. But they do this only at a child's level, not with the capacity, the sophistication, nor the complex motivation of adults.

How, then, are we parents to respond?

First, we need to educate ourselves to the developmental level and capabilities of our children. There are a growing number of excellent books available in libraries and bookstores on child development; most are written to be easily understood by those of us who are not mental health professionals.

Second, we want to expect our children to think, and feel and act, like the infants, or toddlers, or first-graders, or junior high students, or young adults they are. No more, no less.

And we have to respond appropriately. We can try to help our children move up to the next level of thinking by reasoning with them, but we cannot expect them to think at our level. In fact, initially we have to think at theirs if we are going to understand them.

Finally, we always need to give our children the benefit of the doubt. Especially when it comes to their motives, we ought to assume that they often want what they want for exactly the reasons they say. Even if we are wrong sometimes, we will be better off if we start with the simplest explanation for their behaviors.

Raising children is never easy. Just as soon as we think we have them figured out, they change. That is part of the challenge -- and the excitement -- of being parents. It can help us a good deal if we just remember that they are children and not adults.

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