or why what we think has no bearing on how children understand
“He is fighting sleep.”
“They are testing me today.”
“Kids have to test the limits.”
“Teens have to rebel.”
Nope, nope, nope, nope. No to all.
A form of childism that pervades our culture is seen in the way adults talk about children's perceptions of the world –their aims, their understanding and their experiences.
Kids don't 'test boundaries' they struggle mightily to make any kind of sense out of the world, from gravity to unspoken social rules (like why we compliment people on weight loss but never mention gain, which is kind of related to gravity) and part of that is pure science experiment: what happens when I ...?
What happens when I pour the water on the floor?
What happens when I pour it on the couch?
The cat? When the sun is up?
When the lights are on?
When it's from a sippy cup?
When it's from a bottle?
When it's from a bowl?
Adults, looking at this typical exploration of the world will often say 'she's testing the boundaries' or 'she's testing her parents.'
She's trying to figure out why this cup-shaped stuff changes shape as it moves, why it makes some things lighter and some things darker and why it has not so far ever gone up the other way. If sometimes there is a lot of clapping and cheering and sometimes there is anger and shouting or punishment, she'll have to spend a lot of time experimenting to figure out how to fit that into her understanding of the world, too.
Years ago, John Bradshaw (Family Systems theory) told a story of how little Farquar would be happily jumping into a pile of cushions mum made for him in the living room, to cheering and laughter, who later spots a pile of cushions in the furniture store and can't for the life of him work out why he's being shouted at and dragged by the arm from the store... 'it looked like a pile of cushions to me...???'
We tend to personify our worlds, generally: people cut us off in traffic, they aren't distracted and hurried; the weather is for or against our plans, depending on if it rains on our parade; if we were to say that to someone only in anger, that can be the only possible reason anyone else said it to us, ever... et cetera.
A brief aside: the Fundamental Attribution Error is a common thought mistake whereby we excuse our own errors (we didn't 'cut off that driver' because they were going faster than we thought or we're just in a hurry which makes it fine or understandable or otherwise completely excusable) yet we attribute character flaws and/or malice to others who do exactly the same things (they are Bad Drivers, they are Selfish, Thoughtless, Idiots, Worthless, Reprobates.)
Becoming aware of this common thought error can help us enormously in life, not the least in preventing our own stress-caused heart attacks. Anyhow... back to the point...
When we are looking at our children's behaviour and attitudes, expressions and postures, it's important to remember a number of vital things before we react in anger or frustration:
- Is this a Fundamental Attribution Error?
- Is it possible to explain this behaviour in a neutral or positive way?
- Am I attributing adult brain capacities to a child's brain?
- Am I taking personally something which genuinely has nothing at all to do with me?
A friend's son once rollerbladed up the aisle at church. In his defense, he was a young teen and incapable of complex thought processes like abstractions (How will this reflect on my mother's parenting? What kinds of unspoken rules might this violate? How will the parish see this? What deeper meaning might there be to aisles in churches vis a vis casual sporting equipment?) and it was choir practice, not sermon. In her defense, she'd not encountered a lot of information about brain development and the differences between adults' and children's brains at that point. To this day, she tells the story wishing that she was anyone but his mother, so she could have laughed because it was hilarious. Instead, she felt constrained by her role as Mother to perform 'stern' and 'censorious' as she believed she was expected (peer pressure doesn't go magically away as we leave our teens...)
Surely you can see where I'm going with this...
It's hard to remember a time in our lives when we didn't have those brain structures that make thinking this way possible, because all of our memories are coloured by the rememberings using each new structure as it developed... so we are telling stories of ourselves as younger through the thoughts of our brains imagining those events while we are older.
It is easy and unchallenging to us to take things personally and make the other person wrong rather than struggling to see their point of view. It is so clearly so vastly different from our own pov, particularly when we're used to our adult brains and the idea that everyone else on the planet has the same adult-brain capacity we do.
Our children have a deep need to stay connected to us, to keep us on their side, and absolutely no interest in infuriating us. Attributing desires in them that disconnect or distance them from us and our approval is wildly inappropriate.
It is grossly unfair to punish someone for rules they don't know exist, particularly when we have great difficulty ourselves trying to articulate the specifics of these rules and how they vary from time to time and place to place.