Thursday, August 23, 2007

How To Permanently Warp A Child's Mind

You know that children are growing up when they start asking questions that have answers.
- John J. Plomp

Written as a joke, this statement tells much about the relationships of many parents and their young children.

All questions have answers. How a parent responds to a question to which he or she doesn't have a ready answer that is generally acceptable to their community or is verifiably true will vary a great deal.

Some parents won't answer the "questions without answers" at all. To a young child who is formulating a concept of the world around her, no answer is rejection of the child as an individual, robbing her of recognition as a person who has or will some day have a significant role to play in the society around her.

Others parents may say "nobody knows" when in fact someone may well know the answer to a question such as "Daddy, why is the sky blue?" Everyone on this planet lives under a blue sky, though the shade will differ from place to place. A child trying to understand her environment will want to know about what's up there as well as what is underneath her feet.

An honest answer from such parents may be "Someone knows, but I'm too lazy to find out for you." Whether the parent intends the child to understand this as the unspoken reply, that is what the child will conclude. A young child will have trouble believing that everyone lives under a blue sky and nobody knows why it's blue. To a child, this would be inconceivable. Children believe that everyone wants to know about the world around them because that is what they inherently want themselves.

Some parents create fantasies as answers to questions to which they don't know the real answers. These fantasies are not usually harmful to the child because most will accept as they get older that every culture has fantasies they use to explain complicated questions to young children. Fantasy concepts such as the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy create fun situations for kids so they tend to accept them under those conditions even when they cease to believe in them as realities. And they pass them along to their own children.

To a young child, is it wrong to explain thunder as angels bowling in the heavens? Thunder can sound very much like a bowling ball rolling down an alley. The parent relates a sound to one the child may understand, that of a bowling ball rolling over wood. However, attached onto that little story are the "throwaway" concepts of angels and heaven. They don't mean much to an adult as part of a fantasy story, perhaps, but not so with a child.

As the child ages and is taught religious lessons about angels and heaven, the story about bowling angels seems ridiculous. But no more ridiculous than heaven's streets being paved with gold when spirits have no need for either paved streets or the mineral that is valued only by mortal humans.

A few parents will know the answers to those questions that young children have. I am reminded of the joke about the parent whose young child asks about sex, whereupon the parent thinks the child must be more mature than he believes and undertakes to explain mammalian reproduction. At the end of the story, the child thanks the parent and says "Bobby asked me what sex our cat was and I didn't know."

A parent who doesn't know the answer to a question posed by a young child has an obligation to find out and report back to the child. A parent who knows the answer must explain it in language the child can understand. That's often a problem. Babies, for example, don't use Baby Talk. Only adults do that. A parent who underestimates the ability of a child to comprehend an intellectual concept underestimates the potential of the child.

Young children spend almost all of their waking hours formulating concepts of the world around them. Adults, by comparison, do this very little. Many adults are more prepared to accept the explanation and conclusions of someone else (even a stranger) for a complicated question than to find out for themselves. That accounts for why we have so many stupid followers in our society who are prepared to believe almost anything if it's told to them in an authoritative manner.
Young children understand concepts because it's what they do. For the first six years of their lives, everything they experience is a component of what becomes their concept of what the world is all about.

Lie to a young child and the child will grow up to believe that lying is acceptable, especially if you don't get caught. Strike the child unnecessarily and the child will understand that physical abuse of children is the way of the world. Sexually abuse a young child and you destroy any possibility that it will grow up to be a competent and confident individual adult who can stand with other more balanced adults as an equal.

Treat a young child with respect and the child will respect others as an adolescent and an adult. Teach a child what he needs to know and he will teach others, spreading the word exponentially.
Fail to teach a child what he needs to know before he needs it, such as how and why to avoid drugs and alcohol, and the best intentioned of parents may find themselves trying to raise a child that has become an addict.

Children don't want to be ignorant. No young child wants to grow to be a social deviant. Every child wants to be respected, appreciated and treated as a member of the society (family) to which he or she belongs. The family is the child's world and no child wants to be an ignorant member of that world.

If this is the kind of adult we want in our community, this is how we must treat our children. Teach right, teach good and teach peace.

If we want our children to be treated this way by their parents, we must teach young adults what they need to know before they become parents. This can be done by the education system with very few and inexpensive changes.

If you believe that this is the best way to make your community, your country, your world a better place to live, don't let this message end when you reach the end of this article. Talk it up among your friends and relatives. Talk about it at work. Especially talk about it at Home and School and Parent-Teacher meetings.

This is what you can do to make a difference to the world. Change can only happen one conversation at a time.

Bill Allin
Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems, a book about how to help people make significant changes to better their communities and their own lives.
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