2002-04-18 / Other News

Counsellor Advises: Let Children Be Children

Counsellor Advises: Let Children Be Children

By Marilyn Atherley. Ph.D.

It seems obvious when we say it: "Children are not little adults." But that fact is something many of us often forget in interacting with our children, resulting in unnecessary frustration for both us and them.

It can help to remember that the world appears very differently to children than it does to adults. The way that a young person processes incoming information, in fact, the very information that he or she chooses to take in, is different from what adults choose to allow in and process.

Children do, in fact, exist in their "own little worlds." Yet there are times when adults forget this and expect children to function and react to life the way they, the adults, do. That usually isn’t possible. Our adult reactions are based on our life experiences – experiences our children have not yet had themselves.

That’s why your children often react differently than you to the same situation. The following examples of adult expectations illustrate how far apart we and our children often are in how we view the world:

"Don’t be so messy!" For an adult it’s embarrassing when a visitor (your mother-in-law, for example) walks in on a messy house. Children simple don’t carry this embarrassment. A businessman with mud on his slacks will spend all day apologizing for his appearance. A 9-year-old boy with muddy jeans won’t even notice the dirt, but will want to tell you all about how he stole second base.

"Realize how busy I am and what pressure I’m under!" Job or social pressures certainly can leave you feeling hassled and out of time. But those aren’t pressures young people are yet experiencing. To them what you’re saying is simply that they’re only allowed to have feelings or need help when it’s convenient for you, when the outside world isn’t more important.

"Understand the laws of economics!" Of course what you may actually say is something like, "I’m not made out of money," but the message is the same. At some level you expect your child to understand how the stock market, interest rates, and the cost of living have affected the amount of money you have. But young people have almost no frame of reference for money matters other than knowing they need money to buy a new CD. Asking a child to take into account the financial pressures you face every day simply isn’t realistic.

"Be aware of how dangerous the world is!" We spend our children’s youngest years trying to shield them from the harsh realities of the world. Still, we also expect them to have a sense of danger, to be afraid of being mugged or having a house burgled. Six-year-olds don’t do these things, so they’re not quite real to them. While adults can and must teach young people about personal safety, it shouldn’t be by instilling unreal fears or passing on the adult’s own anxieties. The level of expectation must be within the child’s appreciation of danger.

"There’s so much to do and so little time!" Unlike most adults, young people don’t fill their days with 101 things to do. They also usually don’t have the urgent commitments adults face. Therefore, staying outside to play until they have had enough seems quite natural to them. They sometimes gauge time by whether it’s light or dark, or when they have slept and woken up. Children like wearing watches because it makes them look grown-up, or because the watch is "cool," not because they care what time it is.

There’s a real benefit in remembering that children are really just children, not smaller adults, and in letting them enjoy that childhood. We can’t and shouldn’t expect them to live up to our dreams, or understand our problems, or want to spend "quality time" with adults (did you really enjoy the visits with elderly Aunt Minnie when you were young?) rather than hanging out with their friends.

As adults, we sometimes have to impose rules and actions that our children simply don’t understand or relate to (like getting that room cleaned up before the board of health issues a citation). But realizing why they don’t understand, even though they may be doing what is asked, can avoid needless fights and frustration for both parent and child.

Dr. Atherley is an Educational Consultant and Counsellor born and raised in the Caribbean. Her work, which takes her around the globe, coupled with her experience as a mother of two, has provided her with rich insights into human behaviour and especially the process of learning.

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