Tuesday, July 14, 2020

"Wait!"


If I had to guess, I'd say the boy was around 18 months old. He was walking ahead of his parents, pushing a baby doll stroller along the sidewalk, clearly enjoying himself. As he approached the corner of this downtown block his mother called out, "Wait!" Instantly, the boy began to run toward the street, giggling wildly, as if what he'd heard her say was "Go!" Both parents continued to shout "Wait!" as they sprinted, catching him up before he reached the curb.

It was a trafficless pandemic weekend, so there had been no actual danger, but I have no doubt that his parents could feel their hearts in their throats. I imagine they further frightened themselves with thoughts about what could have been and in that anxiety they scolded the boy who never stopped giggling, obviously having experienced it like a thrilling game of chase, something he would undoubtedly do again.

No harm, no foul I suppose. Every parent has had those moments, but it's interesting to think about that boy's reaction to his parents' command to "Wait!" He hadn't waited at all. He hadn't even hesitated. The moment he heard the word, it was off to the races. It's not the first time I've seen this, a child who has developed the habit of responding in joyful opposition to his parent's commands. I reckon there are those who would suggest that the boy needed, at minimum, a good put-the-fear-of-god in him scolding, or even a punishment, something to let him know that he was never to do that again, but that's not the way punishment works, especially for children this young. He could certainly be made to cry, but it's likely that the only lesson he would learn is that those who are bigger and stronger can use those advantages to inflict unpleasantness. 

After all, the boy was clearly incapable at this stage of his development of understanding the manifest danger of running out into traffic. If he had actually understood the pain and mayhem that would result from being hit by a car, he would have naturally stopped of his own accord. I'm sure he's been warned about the dangers of traffic, perhaps even lectured, but the fact that he nevertheless raced unheedingly toward the street is evidence that that particular lesson hasn't yet been learned, and no amount of punishment will make that any easier to comprehend. What it will take is for him to grow older, for his brain to develop to the point that he can engage in the sort of counterfactual thinking required to conceive of the pain and mayhem that could result from the rashness of running out into traffic.

But what about his disobedience? He defied his parents' command to "Wait!" thereby placing himself in danger. Certainly, a boy that young, a boy not developmentally equipped to understand the manifest danger of running into traffic, needs to at least be made to understand, one way or another, that he must obey his parents' commands for his own good. I can't tell you how many conversations I've had with young parents that start with the complaint, "My kid won't listen to me." And my response is always some version of, "I'm sure they're listening. They're just not obeying." In the case of this boy with the stroller he definitely heard his mother command him to "Wait!" Instead of obeying, however, he chose the only other option open to him. He listened and reacted. Researchers tell us that something like 80 percent of the sentences adults say to children are phrased as commands, which means that most of the time when we speak with children we leave them with this sort of stunted obey-or-disobey decision tree.

Thank god, this boy at least sometimes rebels against commands even if it frightens his parents. Obedient children grow into adults who can't make decisions for themselves, who are looking for others to do their thinking for them, and who, when lacking someone to obey, are likely to insist upon obedience from others. People who have learned the lessons of obedience tend to be a danger to themselves and others. No, the world doesn't need more obedience, it needs more thinking, and the language of command shuts down the possibility of thought, leaving children to simply react: obey or disobey.

So what should the parents have done about this boy who would run out into traffic? The immediate, simple answer is to hold his hand when near traffic, or to at least walk close enough to him so that he can be physically prevented him from impulsively dashing into the street. The longer term and more difficult answer is for his parents to strive to command less and inform more. No one, whatever our age, reacts well to being told what to do. It's part of our evolutionary heritage to want to think for ourselves rather than simply obey. It was evident from the boy's giggling joy that this was a game he had played with this parents before, a game of disobedience, of exerting what little control an 18-month-old can exert. In other words, his world, like the world of most young children, is full of commands, and he's made a game of defying them. If the commands disappear (or are at least reduced) so does the game. 

But in the meantime, those parents will want to hold their child's hand when around traffic.

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The Play First Summit is just around the corner! Please join us for this free event featuring twenty of the world's top early childhood and parenting thought leaders, including Janet Lansbury, Peter Gray, Lisa Murphy, Ijumaa Jordan, Maggie Dent, and Cheng Xuequin (Anji Play). This is not just another series of lectures, but rather a collection of conversations about our challenging times, how they are impacting young children and families, what we can do about it, and how we might seize this moment to transform the early years into what they ought to be for children everywhere. To see the full list of speakers and to register, click here.

Also, Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in the UK, Iceland, and Europe thanks to my friends at Fafunia! It's also available in the US and Canada. If you want to go directly to the Fafunia page click here.  And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well.


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