Thursday, July 26, 2007

Things we assume that children know

This post is largely aimed at primary school teachers and the parents of small children.

When I was a kid, there were things I didn't know. I asked questions, of course, but, because they didn't realise why I was asking, my parents' answers didn't fully address the issue. Of course, I'm not saying for a moment that every child has the same blank spots, but perhaps mine might set you thinking about those of the children in your class.

Days of the week
. There was no TV in South Africa when I was a child, and we were not a church-going family so the different days of the week had no discernable distinguishing characteristics. The only difference was that some days my parents went to work and some they didn't. Later it was a case of some days I went to school and some I didn't. I didn't realise that there was a fixed pattern to this, and would ask my parents each morning whether it was a school day or not. I'm sure my parents would say things like, "Yes, it's Monday" or "No, it's Saturday" Even so, I had no way of knowing that those names were not simply made up by my parents. I honestly believed that they made the choice each morning as to whether or not they would go to work and I would go to school. When your kids ask you questions that pertain to the passage of time, don't assume that they've got it sussed. Take the time to talk it through with visual aids.

Funnily enough, this one cropped up again recently when I popped into our little local post office (which is at the back of the local pharmacy) and found the counter closed. I asked the pharmacy assistant whether the post office was closed for lunch and she said irritably, "It's Wednesday afternoon!" Apparently "everyone" knows that the local post office closes on Wednesday afternoons. How silly of me!

People's names.
We spent an enormous amount of time on the beach during my childhood. This was the days before concerns about skin cancer and the beach was free. I would spend hours playing with some new friend and, when I returned to my mother for lunch, she would ask, "What's his/her name?" Every time. I didn't know. I didn't care. It wasn't important. You didn't have to know a person's name to be able to build a sandcastle together. If the situation cropped up where one of you needed to know the other person's name, you asked.

There was another aspect to this. In those days, it wasn't the done thing for teachers' given names to be known to the children (I understand that this is still the case in Australia), and it was the cause of much giggling if the children found out that Mrs Greene was actually called Heather. This culture kind of followed me home. Because my parents had split up when I was quite young, I didn't have exposure to two adults calling each other by their given names around the house. As a consequence, I wasn't quite sure whether it was okay that I knew that my Mom was called Barbara. I used to ask her repeatedly what her name was. I reasoned that if she said her name out loud, that would mean she had given her permission. However, my mother thought I was just being silly, so she hedged the question, answering "Methuselah" or some such. Years later, when I explained the situation to her, she realised that if she had just answered the question honestly, she would have relieved herself of a lot of irritation!

Sometimes all you need to do is take the question at face value and answer it. There is, after all, no such thing as a stupid question!

Doing wrong v committing a crime. What gave rise to this whole post was my 15 year old son asking me if adultery was a criminal offence. It reminded me of my dread as a child that my mother would get sent to prison, leaving me to fend for my much younger sister all alone. I would plead with her not to let the police take her away to prison and she would assure me that people only got sent to prison when they had committed a crime, which she defined in answer to my question as "doing something very wrong".

Well, this was in the bad old days of apartheid and I saw how my Zulu nanny lived in dread of the police. If one of their vans appeared, she would hide. I had also seen how the neighbourhood drunk - an elderly Zulu woman who gloried in the name Bababa - regularly got carted off to prison in the paddy wagon when she had been singing loudly in the street outside.

I also knew that my mother did some very wrong things. She swore sometimes and she shouted when she was cross. Once she threw her hairbrush against the wall and it snapped. These must surely be crimes and, if the police only knew about them, she would be right there with Bababa the next time they came by.

Sometimes fears need to be tackled head on. Find out why kids are afraid of whatever it is and see if a reality check doesn't help.

That they are loved. My mother came from a very tightly buttoned family and has never been able to put her feelings into words. As a consequence she never told us that we were loved. I used to hear other parents telling their children that they loved them, and wondered whether there was something wrong with me. Once I even asked my mother if she loved me. She was irritated. One simply did not discuss such things, and she told me not to be so silly. What she meant was that I should not be so silly as to ask, not that I should not be so silly as to imagine that she might love me. However, this was how I interpreted her answer.

Of course, I have erred to the other extreme and tell my children I love them countless times a day. My younger son asked me about this when he was about four. I explained that I had never heard those words from my mother. As it happened, we were driving to visit my Mom at the time, and the first words out of his mouth when he climbed out of the car were, "Granny, why haven't you ever told my Mommy that you love her?" My mother said "I assumed she knew." To this day, my mother has been unable to frame those words. The closest she came was after a recent crisis when it came out that I had felt unloved as a child and she emailed me to say that she did love me and always had.

For goodness sake, tell your kids you love them! Three monosyllabic words... you can do it!

That parents break the rules, too. When I was a kid, no adult would ever dream of apologising to a child, even if the child had been grievously wronged. However, were I to try the same thing, I would be in for serious punishment, and reminded how wrong such behaviour was. Often adults would say that something was wrong, even though they themselves did whatever it was (smoking, or swearing for example). I found this confusing. Rules never seemed to stand still, and I always seemed to be breaking them. Just when I thought I had it all figured out, it would change again.

With our own children, we have decided to keep short accounts. When we wrong them we apologise. What's slightly more difficult is to remember to explain the situation when they have witnessed an infraction, but were not directly affected by it. When they were too little to figure it out for themselves, we would explain that the rule hadn't changed, just that we had broken it this time. We made it very clear to them that we tried to "behave" but that, just like them, we blew it from time to time.

When an adult breaks the rules in a child's presence, and the child is later seen to imitate the action, don't assume they know they are doing wrong - they may think the rule has changed.

There are several more, but it's time I got down off my soapbox, now. Please don't think I'm implying that I've got all the answers or that I'm the perfect parent (I wish), but we learn from each other in this space...


Cammy Bean said...

What a beautiful post, Karyn! Thanks for your sharing your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

This is a great post! Your ability to remember, with such detail, the feelings you had as a child amaze me and awaken my own memories. I have recently learned that when one of my children kept asking 'are we going to have a storm?' it was really a paralyzing fear of our home being destroyed (even though I’m not in an area of the US to have that type of storm).
As a Mom, I laughed with the ‘days of the week’ because it’s always been ‘how many days until…’ in my home.
The names of adults was always interesting to me- I had friends parents say, call my Kathy or whatever but I was always taught to say Mrs. Smith. If I would’ve went home and called my parents by their first names I would’ve been shut down pretty fast.
Expressing love and making apologies for adult mistakes I believe in wholeheartedly.
Along those same lines of adults taking responsiblity for their mistakes, I used to use a trainer that had a background in psychology - he was once employed as a school psychologist - and he always gave me great parenting advice about allowing your kids to question authority and the difference between punishment and discipline. (Discipline = Doing what you want to do when you don't want to do it).
His thoughts about kids being able to question authority confidentally convinced me to always allow that. (how would they get out of an uncomfortable/dangerous situation; how would they learn?) I should try to track him down....
Thanks again!