What Is It Like to Be a Child?
“Life is hard. You have to go potty even when you don’t want to.”
– 3 year old
When I held my first grandson in my arms, something amazing happened. As I looked at his tiny face, I saw in him not only the infant, but the four-year-old, the eight-year-old, the fourteen-year-old, the youth, and the man. From raising my own sons, I knew how quickly the time passes. Here, cradled in my arms, was a man.
In these first few chapters, we are preparing to cross that wide span of time and look closely at each developmental stage. If you work with older children or youth, you may be tempted to skip the chapters that deal with younger kids. If you work with preschoolers, you may be tempted to skip the information about older children. But I encourage you to stay with us for the entire ride. I want you to see the full scope of faith and moral development. Why?
1. Seeing the big picture will help you understand children better. It’s very easy to get tunnel vision and see a child as simply a four-year-old or a ten-year-old instead of a whole, developing person. You will be a better parent and/or teacher by being aware of the growth process, knowing the previous stage, anticipating the coming stage.
2. Seeing the big picture will prepare you to understand a major point I will be emphasizing later, once you have an understanding of developmental stages.
3. If you are a teacher, seeing the big picture will help you see yourself as part of a team addressing the needs of children at different stages, contributing to the healthy development of the child as a whole person.
We are going to start with a look at young children. If you have spent time with preschoolers, you know they often say and do wonderful things that give us a peek into their minds. I used to write down some of the insights my children, now grown, gave me when they were preschoolers. My older son, Raygan, called his echo his “hide and seek voice.” A nest was a “bird pocket.” Wigs were “put on hairs.” A life jacket was a “splashing coat.”
While putting on his underpants one day, Raygan began to “read” the tag: “And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever,” he said. When he bit off more peanut butter and jelly sandwich than he could chew, he spit out the whole mouthful and said, “I need another one. This one is dead.”
My younger son, Heath, was just as clever. He called his head bone his “skull-a-ton.” One day he said, “I’m gonna’ buy me some new legs. These legs hurt in my flip-flops.” Heath saved everything in the refrigerator (which he called the “fwizwator”). He even stored pennies and rocks in the fridge.
We often laugh at things children say and do. Sometimes we cry over what they say and do! But if you want to work with children, no matter their age, watching and listening to them is very important. That’s because watching and listening to children give you clues about how they think. You learn what they understand and what they don’t understand. When you know how they think and what they understand, you can communicate better with them.
Children amaze us. Sometimes we stand back, shaking our heads. “This child is off in a world of his own,” we say. And that’s true. He is.
Do you remember what it was like to be a child? Do you remember what it was like to be misunderstood? What was it like to misunderstand? What was it like to need to wiggle? What was it like to feel like dancing? What was it like to be laughed at? What was it like to have to wait? What was it like to watch tiny things and to wonder?
As I’ve studied the art and craft of writing for children, I’ve learned that if I want to impact children in a significant way, I must reach into myself and touch my own childhood. I have to see through the eyes of the child in me and to write to make that child laugh or cry or gasp or giggle.
When you work with children, it is critically important to remember what it was like to be a child. Of course, it may not be easy to look back at your childhood. Some childhoods do not make good memories. Some are full of pain, rejection, abuse and hurt. But even so, there is good reason to remember your past. The good reason is the children who are hurting today. These are some of the same children you will be working with as you teach.
Jesus told Peter, “Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:32, emphasis mine). Do you feel like you were sifted in childhood? Strengthen your little brothers and sisters. Because you understand. Paul wrote, “God . . . who comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (2 Corinthians 1:3, 4).
Paul knew hardship from experience. Jesus did too, having been “tempted in every way, just as we are. . . . Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:15, 16). Jesus wasn’t human for nothing. He knows what it’s like to get angry. He knows what it’s like to be concerned. He know how it feels to be disappointed and betrayed. He knows what it’s like to laugh and cry. He knows what it feels like to be weary. Or to be misunderstood. Or to be laughed at. He knows what it’s like to win and to lose.
As adults, we know these things too. We know what it’s like to be a child. We’ve been there. We weren’t kids for nothing. So children should be able to “receive mercy” from us. They should be able to find from us “grace to help . . . in time of need.”
A Child’s World
Let’s look at the world from a child’s-eye view. Let’s try to remember what it was like.
1. A child views the world with his own logic.
David Elkind says, “Children are most like us in feeling, least like us in thinking.”1 Children are relatively new in the world. They try to make sense of the world the best they can. They respond in ways that are logical to them. But many times, their logic stems from their imagination. All it takes is listening to a child to see that his thoughts are not like yours. In the next few chapters, we’ll see more about why this is true.
Do you want to communicate well with children? Then listen to them. Hear how they think. Consider their logic.
One of my sons called pants legs “leg sleeves.” Logical, isn’t it? When he was three, he was fascinated by my sewing scissors. They were very sharp, so I kept them in a plastic sheath when he was around. One day as he was looking at the scissors in their sheath, he asked, “Can it sizz?” Washers wash, clippers clip, scissors must sizz. Of course. It makes perfect sense.
2. A child’s world is full of possibilities.
In the 1940’s, Shinichi Suzuki, a violinist from Japan, developed a method of teaching young children how to play musical instruments. He said, “The potential of every child is unlimited.” Another Japanese teacher, also named Suzuki, said, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.” (2) Children believe that almost anything is possible. They will often say, “I can do it” when we have great doubts about whether they really can or not.
I remember telling my mother that I could carry a pie from the car to the house. The pie didn’t make it. Thanks to Mother’s grace, I did. Thinking anything is possible sometimes gets children into trouble. But it is also one of the motivators that helps children learn and accomplish difficult tasks.
3. A child’s world is a mixture of fantasy and reality.
Thinking anything is possible stems in part from a child’s active imagination. Until a child is about five years old, she has a hard time distinguishing fantasy from reality. As far as she’s concerned, Big Bird is a real friend of hers. Curious George can come over and play in the back yard. At night when everyone is asleep, the tea cups and saucers come out of the cupboards to sing and dance like they do in Disney movies. Animals can talk and action figures can have real adventures.
One day I was getting ready to run some errands. My preschool son asked, “Mommy, will you do me a favorite? Will you drive by the river and get a duck and bring him home? And if you see a hippopotamus and an elephant, let them ride with you.”
Before I had children, I taught at a private preschool in the Los Angeles area. One day we were preparing to grill hot dogs outside. A teacher had begun to light the coals in the grill. One little boy watched intently. Then, pointing to the charcoal, he asked, “Are those gonna’ turn into hot dogs?” He was watching to see if something magic was going to happen.
Psychologists know that people respond to situations based on their perception of reality, not based on reality itself. A child’s world is so steeped in imagination that her reactions are often based on fantasy. So children tend to respond more strongly than we do, expressing feelings that are overly fearful, extremely worried, or extra excited. Throughout childhood, all the way through adolescence, the child’s response level and ours may be very different.
4. A child’s world is less inhibited than an adult’s.
When a child is born, he is completely egocentric. He doesn’t worry about what people are going to think of him. He doesn’t worry about social conventions or about what’s proper in front of others. He is very uninhibited. More than one preschool teacher has heard family secrets blurted out in class.
The younger the child, the less inhibited he tends to be. If young children don’t know a word to describe something, they’re not inhibited. They just make up a word. One four-year-old said, “I got cookie stuck in the top of my mouth, so I took my tongue and thwooshed it out.”
I stood in line at the post office recently, passing the time by watching a little girl who was about 18 months old. Everyone else was watching her too. While her mother waited in line, the little girl climbed on top of and into everything. She pulled large mailing envelopes out of their display and tugged on the ropes that kept the rest of us in line. This little one was full of energy and was using as much of it as her mom would allow.
When it was time for the little girl to leave, she waved goodbye to everyone in line. All of us waved back, except for one man. He was engrossed in his piece of mail. Undaunted and uninhibited, this little girl walked right up to him and waved at his face.
5. A child’s world is full of curiosities.
A child is very aware that there are lots of things she does not know, and she has a natural curiosity to find out about them. If she doesn’t burn out on learning, that desire to discover can stay with her into adulthood.
Four- and five-year-olds are at a prime time in their lives for discovering and learning about their world. At this age, they ask lots of questions. I went on a field trip with my four-year-old class one day. As we rode along, I pointed out interesting sights to the little boy who sat beside me on the bus. When I spied a flat bed truck carrying an old house, I said, “Look at that truck moving a house.”
My little friend gazed at the sight in awe, then asked, “Where are the roots?”
6. A child’s world is often overwhelming.
There’s a lot about the adult world that children don’t understand. So children may have fears that seem unreasonable to adults. My son wanted the window shades closed when it was dark, “so the night won’t come in.”
The physical scale of a child’s world is much bigger to him than our world is to us. Do you remember what it was like to sit in chairs when your feet wouldn’t touch the floor? Do you remember not being able to see the top of the kitchen counter? Do you remember standing in a group of grown-ups and looking them squarely in the belt?
Imagine how it would feel if stairs were proportioned to you the way they are to a child. How high would you have to step? Think of the energy it would take to go up a flight of stairs if they were almost knee high to you. A child spends much of his time getting around, over, past or through the physical obstacles that surround him every day.
But the physical world isn’t the only thing that’s overwhelming. Along with the rest of us, the child is bombarded every day by all sorts of things vying for his attention. The average American is confronted with 3,000 advertisements a day. That’s 1,095,000 ads a year. By the time a child is 15, he’s seen more than 16,425,000 ads.3 Each ad tries to be more lively or colorful, louder or brighter in the competition over who can catch the public’s attention.
One spring, our symphony gave a children’s concert that took us on a tour of music from the beginning of time up to the last years of the 20th century. The first “music” we heard was from nature: a brook gurgling, birds singing, wind stirring leaves in the trees, a dog barking.
As each period of music went by, there were more and more instruments, more and more sounds. It progressed until we heard avant garde music, a cacophony of machine and traffic sounds accompanied by instruments. The symphony conductor made the comment that in these days, we learn to block out sounds. All day, we shut out peripheral sound in order to focus on what we’re doing.
Is this why I can stand three feet from a child, call his name and get no response? Maybe he is shutting out sound so he can focus and concentrate on what he’s doing.
7. A child’s world is “now.”
We adults often talk about how fast time passes. Every year seems to pass faster and faster. I was talking about this to one of my sons when he was sixteen. He pointed out, “A year is shorter to an adult. Just think about it. To a six-year-old, a year is one-sixth of his entire life. To a forty-six-year-old, a year is only one-forty-sixth of his entire life. It’s shorter as you get older.”
Bypassing those philosophical issues, the reality is that young children do not have the mental capacity to comprehend the flow of time. To a young child, “long ago” was yesterday at Grandma’s house. You can tell her, “In two weeks, it will be your birthday,” but she’ll wake up tomorrow and ask, “Is it my birthday yet?” Christmas may be “just around the corner,” but that seems like an eternity to a young child. A few years ago, a family that lives in our neighborhood left early in the morning to drive across country to Grandma’s for a family vacation. The mom tried to explain to their preschooler that they had a long drive ahead of them. She said, “We won’t get there until after we’ve eaten breakfast, lunch, and dinner. After dinner, we’ll get there.” Her preschool son said, “Then let’s eat dinner now.”
The ability to comprehend the flow of does not develop until children are between six and eight years old. Even then, they live very much in the present. Getting a handle on the flow of time develops bit by bit and increases with the brain growth that occurs in adolescence.
8. A child’s world is self-focused.
Children are not born thinking of others. The younger the child, the more naturally self-centered he is. If a baby is cold or hungry or wet or uncomfortable, he usually communicates it immediately. The world revolves around him. He knows nothing else.
As the child grows, he begins to interact with more and more of the world around him. He works works hard to find out how he affects his world. Gradually he begins to see other people’s needs. But voluntarily putting others first demands a high level of maturity. We will see that this maturity develops as the child’s own needs are met. When a child’s needs are met, he becomes free to reach out and help meet the needs of other people.
Why Study Childhood?
Part of being child-sensitive is trying to see what the world feels like from the child’s perspective. That information is valuable to us, because it helps us see the child’s needs more clearly. It helps us respect the child. It helps us communicate more effectively.
As we’ve seen, one way to know the child’s viewpoint is to remember what it was like to be a child. Another way is to watch children and listen to them. A third way is to learn from people who have studied children. We will be learning from some of these experts in the following pages.
One of these experts is Robert Coles, a professor of psychiatry and medical humanities at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Coles received a Pulitzer prize for his five-volume Children of Crisis series. He has spent over thirty years listening to children. In an interview about children, he said, “They offer us a chance to see a good part of what we are: human beings struggling to figure out what this world means.” Coles urges us to “regard children as fellow human beings yet to be constricted and constrained the way that some of us have been as we have made the various compromises that are called growing up.” He says, “The point is not to romanticize children but to understand the . . . perspective they have. . . . They are new on the block, so to speak. As a consequence they have a certain kind of openness of mind and heart.”4
There’s another reason for trying to see the world from a child’s viewpoint. Jesus said, “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). If for no other reason than this, childhood is worth a good, long look.
In God’s Kingdom, we are all children of the Father. So, as it happens, we are children teaching children. We can all rejoice to hear him say, “Let the little children come to me . . . for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (Mark 10:14).
–from Child Sensitive Teaching, by Karyn Henley, Chapter 1.
© Karyn Henley. All rights reserved. Exclusively administered by Child Sensitive Communication, LLC.