All In Good Time

Well, what did you think was going to happen?

How many times have I told you not to do that?

You should have listened to me the first time!

Human brains seek patterns. Young children are especially tuned in to this process, making them so positively responsive to predictable, consistent routines. Healthy, nurtured babies learn very early on that crying yields results. They get hungry, they express hunger, someone feeds them. They get tired, they express fatigue, and someone helps them to ease into sleep. This is normal, healthy brain development at its finest!

As babies mature, they make more discoveries and connections along the way. For example, if they smile, someone smiles back! This is a fun pattern for all involved. Sometimes they learn that if they drop something, someone will pick it up. This pattern becomes less fun for Mom and Dad as it establishes, but it’s still a sign of normal, healthy brain development.

Young children are so attuned to patterns that sometimes we make the mistake of giving them more credit than we should. We think they are capable of things like sophisticated planning, recall, and even reading the minds of adults.

The young toddlers in my program learn that they can use their growing legs to rock their chairs backwards, just a little bit. Then a little bit more. Then way too much more, as they fall back and bump their heads on the floor. As an adult, I have the cognitive ability to anticipate what might happen when they begin to rock their chairs, so I stop them. (“I’m going to stop you from rocking your chair back. I don’t want you to go back too far and bump your head.”) When I stop them, they understand being stopped. They understand my reference to head bumps too, because they are at a stage in life where they’re acutely sensitive to those injuries, and they usually respond by raising one hand to their skulls, rubbing or touching with a worried face. Then, they try to return to rocking their chair. So I repeat that I’m going to stop them, and again I do. Sometimes this continues off and on for weeks. Sometimes months. Do I get tired of reminding them not to rock their chairs backwards? Of course I do, are you kidding me?! But I maintain my composure because I know that they are testing the pattern they are starting to believe exists: “When I rock my chair, Jenn stops me. When I don’t stop, she makes me leave the chair.

Infants and toddlers are learning so much all the time, every minute, but they can’t do more than their brains are capable of and cognitive development takes time. A lifetime, actually. The steps that I can think through in my mind to determine that it’s not a good idea for them to rock their chairs back (they could fall, they could hit their heads, they could get seriously hurt) are not steps that the toddler mind can go through. That’s why they have adults to look after them. Even when they internalize certain patterns and messages, it could still be years before they are fully capable of understanding why certain things should be done and other things should not be done. Anticipating a likely outcome of an action or event is not something that young children can be expected to do.

This is pretty basic information, right? I mean, we all know that they’re toddlers and they’re just learning and that it’s our job to guide them and keep them safe. But our expectations and frustrations and general hurry-up-edness know no bounds. Sometimes in our rush to teach them to expect and anticipate and understand consequences, we assign them undeserved shame and blame. This can have a devastating impact on a young child.

Well, what did you think was going to happen? Likely, they didn’t think about what might happen. They just followed the impulse to try this thing. Their experiments are more likely to have a hypothesis that looks like, “Let’s do it!” than, “Let’s do it because _____________.” It’s not until age three that synaptic density in the prefrontal cortext reaches its peak (200% of adult level), improving and consolidating cognitive function and allowing for increasingly sophisticated understandings of cause and effect.

How many times have I told you not to do that? More times than they can likely count. And you’ll have to tell them again and again and again. In general, it’s not until after the age of three that children begin to be able to use the past to interpret the present. One study shows clearly that young children’s thoughts are so dominated by their current state that they cannot conceive of an alternate state. We know that children “live in the moment,” but we have forgotten, by the time our brain has been pruned into its adult form, what that really feels like and how it overrides everything else.

You should have listened to me the first time! They’re always listening and they’re always watching. More accurately, they’re not developmentally ready to store and recall what you said, applying it to every situation that seems reasonable or obvious to you.

Young children can make such stunning, remarkable connections. They surprise us all the time with their insights and intelligence. We can’t run the risk of shutting down their natural experimentation, risk-taking, limit-testing, and exuberance by assigning them shame and blame that they can’t understand. The cost is too high.

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3 thoughts on “All In Good Time

  1. Jaime says:

    I have a 4 1/2 year old son. Since he was about 2 I have found that he very seldomly needed direction/warnings repeated. He was never a risk taker as he always seemed to anticipate danger. Now 4 he seems to process situations differently then others in his age group. He seems to be able to think ahead. For instance just yesterday while preparing for breakfast at our vacation home he stated that he couldn’t have cereal for breakfast because it was messy and we didn’t have a vacuum. He was right, we don’t but i was shocked by his thought process. It hadnt been mentioned by me or my husband. It was his own anticipation. This “gift” also tends to bring him a lot of anxiety as with each new situation we enter he seems to anticipate the worst. I try to help him by giving him calming /coping techniques & cognitive-behavioral type of activities (i’m a clinical social worker) but he seems to become so stuck in the future and his worries that he just can’t calm down. It’s frustrating for me as i want him to be a care free kid yet he just seems to be “thinking” ahead all the time! He is primarily a happy child, enthusiastic & outgoing yet lately in new environments he becomes anxious (he seems to recover quickly though for the most part). He also has SPD and is very sensitive to loud noises which often is the center of his distress. Any suggestions on ways to help him acclimate to new situations a bit more smoothly?

  2. Ariadna says:

    Thank you for reminding my pruned brain to be more in tune with my 3 years old. Now I have a new group of 3 yo and I expect from them everything that my 4- 41/2 yo are capable of doing. Great article my friend, like all of them 🙂 I really enjoy them, I read them with your voice in my head 😉

  3. JG says:

    Hi Jaime,
    What a gifted boy you have! I understand his anxieties (my brain has always worked that way too). Do you ever try getting silly with him? Sometimes that helps with anxious children — go far down the imaginary paths, “OR, we might meet a lion! What would happen if we…” Sometimes the good-natured connection breaks the bubble of anxiety. Also, going into new situations just try to be as prepared as possible. For example, look at a map of how to get there, talk about who will be there, talk about what you might see and say and do… It sounds like he can run through it all in his head, so giving him the tools to do it rationally, and to prepare himself, might be helpful. Simply providing your physical and emotional support will do wonders too. You will see a lot of this dissipate over time. It’s very normal for this age group to have anxieties. Consistent, calm reassurance and a “Let’s go try it,” attitude make a big difference. (Empathize with his concerns and let him know that if he’s really struggling, you can always try something else or walk away.) I hope this is helpful! Thanks for sharing your story 🙂

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