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Cowboys and Cognitive Aliens

By Jennifer A. Williams February 14, 2012

A father heads outside to rake the leaves in his yard with a toddler in tow. It's a corner lot with a house lined with trees and bushes. Before they start, he tells her, "Don't go around the corner of the house." As he digs into his work, the toddler quickly disappears around the bushes, and the father runs after her. "Remember, don't go around the corner!" Just minutes later the toddler scoots around the corner for a third time, and the father retrieves her, with the same warning. Now it's a game for her. On the fourth escape, the exasperated father swats her hard on her bottom and says, "I told you, don't go around the corner!" The child looks up with tears in her eyes and says, "Daddy, what's a corner?"

AlienGirl2.jpgSometimes we forget that children don't have the same experience of life or the same understanding that we do. No one is born knowing what a corner is. Children might as well be aliens newly landed on earth, unable to understand our world. In fact, children could be considered "cognitive aliens"—a term that has been attributed to the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget. Language is a cognitive skill, and until the developing brain is nearly complete, there is a huge gap between children's processing minds and the world of experience.

Often we forget that children dwell in an entirely different cognitive universe than we do. But many problems in our interactions with children could be solved instantly by keeping this difference in mind. The brains of children, especially those age six and under, are incapable of understanding and interacting with the world in the same way as an adult's mature brain. To add to this disparity, the English language is vast, complex, and full of nuances.

I would venture to say that many toddler tantrums and misbehavior in children and teens lies in the bridge of communication—or the lack of one. There might be a misinterpretation, a misconstrued meaning, an unspoken expectation, an assumption, or a misunderstanding due to our overestimating the child's verbal skills. Our words may be colliding with our unspoken messages, or we may be using an unkind tone that makes what we say confusing, unpalatable, and perhaps even intimidating.

It helps to remember we are dealing with cognitive aliens. Their vocabulary skills and understanding do not match the complexity of experience and the subtle nuances of the English language. Children have simply not developed enough to be able to interface accurately or to digest all the different meanings and uses of words.

Here are a few stories that illustrate how interactions with cognitive aliens can have unexpected results:

SandHandsKid1.jpgScenario 1:  A friend of mine owns a Montessori preschool, and we like to share amusing stories from our experiences with children. One of my favorites was about children playing in the sandbox at her school on a summer day. When a little boy threw sand up in the air enthusiastically, the teacher calmly approached him and said: "Zack, the sand stays on the ground." The boy quickly retorted, "Don't worry, the sand will come back down." He thought she needed a science lesson on the subject of gravity!

Scenario 2:  Once I was traveling in a truck doing errands with a friend and her eight-year-old daughter. I was telling a story and happened to use the expression "She laughed her head off." The daughter turned to me with great consternation and said, "That is really mean!" It took me aback at first, until I realized that she was being literal. She was extremely visual, and she pictured exactly what I said: the woman's head coming off as she laughed.

Scenario 3:  While at lunch at a day care, children were enthusiastically talking about activities at home. One child talked about his brother taking gymnastics, another about her sister taking horseback riding lessons; a third child was talking excitedly about the ballet lessons she was taking. A very young child listened for a while and, not wanting to be left out, finally piped up and said, "My sister is taking antibiotics!"

To add to the complexity of the English language and its subtleties, parents often use the wrong amount of words with children to make a request or get a point across—too many for a toddler, or too many for a teen! (Ever had children or teens tune you out?) And yet, when our children don't respond in the way we want, we label it as disrespect or misbehavior. Not quite fair, is it?

So when you make a request of your child or teen, make sure you have their full attention, use words they understand, and ask at a level that is developmentally appropriate.

Using the situation of going outside with a child at a lunch break, below you will see the different ways of making a request for the varying ages:

Toddler:  "Please put your hat on."
Preschooler:  "Please get your boots, mittens, and coat on."
Kindergartener:  "Please put on your outside clothes."
Elementary:  "We're going outside. You may want to check how cold it is. Grab a coat and hat if you need them."
Middle schooler:  "Let's head outside."
High schooler:  "See you after lunch."

So the next time an interaction with your child or teen goes sour, ask yourself, "Did they understand what I asked for?" Was I talking their language? Check in to see if they understood before you dish out disciplines.JWsignature.png

 


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Posted in Parents: Permission to Be Imperfect