This weekend, while dancing with my friends at a wedding reception, I noticed a little boy roaming the dance floor, investigating his surroundings. While the room was in movement around him, dancing to the booming music, this little boy, probably around age 4, was looking and learning.
He looked on one side of the stage. He paused. He walked over to the other side of the stage, near me. He paused. He looked up at me, grabbed my dress and tugged on it. I’m the kind of person who is always interested in conversation with little kids, so I looked at him to see what he wanted. He pointed at the speaker and shouted, “It’s coming from there!” I smiled—so proud of this little guy for his scientific exploration to learn that the music he was hearing was coming from these speakers (large black boxes in his mind)—and told him that he was absolutely correct.
He went on to start dancing with his friends, showing off some very sweet moves that even included spinning another little girl in ballroom-style fashion! But I was unable to continue dancing, at least without thinking about what an illustration this little boy had just made for why children’s behaviors so often don’t seem to fit with our adult understanding.
I thought to myself how intriguing it is to me that it took this little boy 4 years to figure out what speakers are and what they do, even though I guarantee that he has various adults in his life who know exactly what they do and could have taught him about it. This isn’t a reflection of poor parenting…not even close. Instead, it’s a reflection of the fact that adults know so much and kids know so little that sometimes adults forget how much they actually know compared to their children.
This stereo example brings with it no problems. No child is going to get yelled at because he doesn’t know what a speaker is and what function it holds. At least I hope not!
But what if so many of the negative behaviors that young children show on a daily basis are related to the same idea: they just haven’t learned it yet?
Think about it…
When you are about to cross the street, you look for cars. Young kids don’t. Why? Because you’ve lived long enough to know that people who want to continue to stay alive should make sure to look for cars so that they don’t get hit. Little kids don’t have the luxury of that experience. Actually, they have the luxury of not feeling that stress and that worry, so they run across the street without a second thought.
When you come across a long line of people, you make your way to the back to wait, however impatiently, for your turn. But kids, they know that the fun is at the front of the line and they don’t really care all that much about anyone else but themselves. They want to get to the fun that comes at the front of the line and wouldn’t give a second thought to waiting at the end of the line and letting other people go before them.
When you see that there is only 1 piece of cake left, you might decide to cut it up to share with other people, or maybe you pass on this piece so that someone else can take it or share it. Not a kid! A little kid will grab that piece of cake, smoosh it into his face and devour as much as he can as fast as he can because he likes sugar and doesn’t really care all that much about the fact that other people also might like sugar.
Is this behavior by children defiance? Of course not.
Is this disrespect for your authority? Of course it isn’t!
Is it selfish behavior that means that this child is going to grow up to be a criminal, destined to live life in the criminal justice system? Well, I can’t guarantee that one, but my guess is that it isn’t!
A child who breaks a social rule isn’t really showing any negative behavior unless his parents or other caregivers have told him about the rule. If they haven’t, he doesn’t know that what he’s doing is wrong. He isn’t being mean, rude, disrespectful or defiant. He’s just doing what seems right to him without the valuable experience and knowledge that you have to show you that what he is doing is wrong.
A child who does something that seems so wrong to the adults isn’t being defiant or disrespectful unless the child has already been told that it is wrong and he’s choosing to do it anyways. If he hasn’t been told, he’s just living his life based on this lack of information.
My friend from the wedding dance was a genius. He had used his deductive reasoning skills to recognize that those black boxes were loud, and that he could hear the booming from the music clearly when he was right next to them. He completed a scientific experiment and figured out that those big black boxes were the source of the noise. For his age and skill level, he was a genius because he figured it out on his own; nobody had to tell him about it.
I was proud of him. And I hope that many kids experience opportunities like this when they choose to learn and figure something out on their own because this is a great way for kids to learn.
But, regardless of how proud I was of him, it is my hope that most kids won’t have to learn ALL things about life in this scientific fashion. For example, I don’t want this kid or any kid to learn about the safety of looking for cars while crossing the street in a scientific manner. That research might get him killed!
And when it comes to social research, I don’t want to leave it up to a preschooler to establish what things hurt other people and what things make others feel good. I want an adult to guide and facilitate those interactions so that kids learn from the important adults in their life and practice those skills in a scientific manner, learning what works and what doesn’t.
So what can you do to help a child who is misbehaving because of ignorance? It’s easy…get rid of the ignorance!
If the ignorance is safety related, handle that first. Protect the child and keep him out of harm’s way, regardless of how much he knows or doesn’t know about the safety concern.
Identify the ignorance.
What is it about your experience that helps you know that what the child is doing is wrong?
Why do you know that it is wrong and he doesn’t?
Create experiences that correct the ignorance:
- Talk with the child about why what he just did was wrong. Provide examples.
- If relevant, incorporate empathy. Ask him how he would feel if someone did that to him, so that he understands that there are reactions to his actions that affect other people, just as he is affected by the actions of others.
- Look for supporting information throughout the week. If you talk about the safety of watching for cars before crossing the street on Sunday, look for examples of other kids crossing the street on your way to school on Monday. When reading a story with cars in it, point out how the cars are on the street and the people are on the sidewalk and why.
- If/when the behavior happens again, now you have more information to draw on to help teach the lesson. While you didn’t really have a reason to be upset with the child’s behavior before, now you have a little bit more justification to be upset because you’ve spent the time educating the ignorance. But, instead of getting upset, turn that anger into educational action and step it up a notch so that the child learns even more about why that behavior isn’t appropriate. Some kids are naturally oppositional and/or defiant, but most kids will benefit from this educational approach.