We’ve all seen those surveys on social media which allow parents to capture those cute and innocent trappings of the toddler mind. “How old is your mom?”, a question might be. “Eighty!” is probably a safe assumption for the average 4 year-old answer.
Adorableness aside, there is a huge benefit to asking real questions about what and how the kiddos think. Highlights, the magazine, is now performing its 10th annual kid survey, offering children a place to be heard. What matters most to them, what are their feelings, how are their thoughts encouraged or discouraged through adult reaction to those thoughts?
What do they worry about, and why? When I was a child, around six or so, I was morbidly concerned about the house catching on fire. I lost sleep. I had an escape kit under my bed, which included a snow globe to break the glass window in my room, a set of plastic safety scissors with which to cut through the window screen (this would never have worked, by the way). My room was on the second floor, so naturally, the kit included two jump ropes tied together for shimmying out the window as well as a bandana to block the smoke and a throw pillow to toss out the window to my dad below, obviously softening the fall.
Every night for months, when my dad tucked me in, I would ask him over and over to make sure he caught me on that day I was so sure would come. It never did. But my anxiety in anticipation was memorable. When I look back, I’m not so sure it was the fire I was so burdened with. It was the need for assurance that my dad would protect me. It was the need for assurance that I was a first priority.
These are the sorts of things our kids are telling us without being sure how to identify the feeling directly. Children are tangible. They connect feelings with people, places, things: the concrete. Stages of cognitive development in children don’t always allow for them to be able to express abstractly or conceptually how something affects them. But they are certainly developing awareness along the way, and we can help.
The beginning stages of development are objective. A sensorimotor stage, for example, the first, is where object permanence comes in. Children are developing a relationship with objects and reactions, people and things. And it goes on. At a certain age, they begin to be able to connect logic with feeling.
Take the fire, for example. After awhile, I was able to consider the fact that my dad would come get me before he himself ran outside. Either that, or someone else would save me, like a fireman. I became less egocentric, less focused on myself and was able to relate more with other humans, recognizing that they also had a part in my life. My preparations became less dire as I realized others prepare also.
I connect all these thoughts to emphasize how important it is to meet our kids where they’re at, to hear what they are saying. My stepson came into the bedroom while I was folding clothes one day and sat on the bed Indian-style, with his elbows down and his head in his hands.
“Hi. Can we just talk, please?”, he asked. I stopped what I was doing and said, “Buddy, what are you thinking about?” He looked so perplexed, and sad. “I just don’t think I will ever beat Daddy at anything! He’s so big.” I reminded him that in 30 years, he would be 35(ish), and his dad would be 60, and then he would probably beat him at most anything. He responded with, “Oh! Well that isn’t too far away. Thanks.” And he didn’t feel so incapable anymore.
It was important for me to not just say, “Oh yes, you will”, and assume that was sufficient. It was necessary for me to help him think through the logistics of it, because I was qualified, while he was not. So, looking beyond what he was saying more deeply to the concern that perhaps he was inadequate or incompetent, and then addressing it with a solution, was a great way to build trust. Those most “pressing” matters are precious.