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How Children View the World

The young child attributes things he can't understand to magic; later with the aid of language and education he gains a concept of who he is, and he may begin to search for life's meaning.

When my niece, Nancy (names in this article were changed), was age two, she stayed with us while her parents moved. Her dad phoned, and I handed the phone to her so that she could hear his voice. Nancy looked surprised and held up the phone saying, "Daddy is in here." At age two and a half our son, Ian, was playing in the backyard. We'd just set the clocks ahead for daylight savings time. At seven o'clock, his usual bedtime, I went to get him saying, "Ian, bedtime." He responded, "You can't kid me, the sun isn't under the grass." If you ask a young child to draw the inside of his body, he will draw a large cavity filled with blood; so when Jimmy saw blood running from his skinned knee he cried believing that his whole self was bleeding away. Dian's son, Henry, age three, knew that his grandfather had died. Henry heard his parents explain to his older sister that Granddad's soul went to heaven, and his body turned to dust. One night Henry refused to go to bed. Finally he told his mom that Granddad was hiding under his bed. When Dian checked she realized that she'd let dust balls accumulate.

We adults are amused and confused by the concept of a man inside a phone, the sun going underground, that loss of blood or dust balls could be frightening, but those concepts were real to the children. We can't call upon our own experiences to understand since we don't remember much that happened before we had language, but we need to understand the meaning of the fear or what is behind a behaviour in order to develop techniques to deal with it. When we understand the conscious life of children at different stages in their development, we can better help them adapt to the real world, and parents will be less confused about what sort of discipline is appropriate to teach the child self-control. In many cases reassurance by the parents is enough to allay the children's fears, but Henry's fear may have had a deeper cause, the fear of losing his parents, which the parents must address. In her book The Magic Years, Fraiberg explains how children attribute things they can't understand to magic and how language helps them humanize. She takes us through stages in the child's mental development.

The baby is motivated to satisfy his own needs. His first thought activity is to remember pictures: pictures of the breast or bottle or mommy, for example. As soon as he learns the name of the object he requires to satisfy his needs, he uses that word to call back the picture of the breast or bottle or mommy, and he can wait to be satiated by repeating the word when alone in his crib.

Soon after the age of two the concept of "I" emerges. The conflict between what his body urges him to do to bring satisfaction and the physical and social restrictions of reality come into conflict. He learns that he can control the body wish by sublimating that wish for an imagined alternative. For example, I want a horse becomes a game where a stick is imagined to be a horse. Parents can employ the principle of substituting another activity (redirection) when the child is misbehaving.

Tommy, age two and a half, wanted to take his baby brother's bottle, and we heard him saying, "No, can't have the bottle." He was trying to curb his wish with words, but his wish was too strong and he took the bottle for himself. His parents showed their displeasure by temporarily withdrawing their approval and comfort. The child learns self-control when he sees that he has displeased his loving parents; he becomes angry with himself and feels guilt. If Tommy puts the bottle back into the baby's crib, we see that he knows his action was wrong; no punishment is necessary. The effect of withdrawal of the parents' approval was only temporary, but it was necessary to teach Tommy self-control. If on the other hand a parent uses physical punishment to correct Tommy, it may cause him to feel that he paid the price for his misdeed, thus depriving him of feeling guilty and learning to control his wishes.

The three to four year old often takes pleasure in cruel acts. There is no use in saying, "How would you feel if someone did that to you?" The egocentric child can think only of himself, but again he senses the displeasure of his parents, and he will want to alter his action to get approval in future. Later the healthy child adapts the attitudes of the parents and loving caregivers. When he acts counter to their teaching he dislikes himself. At that stage he blames imagined friends or others, and he often distances himself from his parents. Beginning at age five or six he begins to imagine himself in the place of others.

By age nine the child who has been nurtured effectively has established some ability to understand human empathy, to transcend love of self, to value human life and be revolted by acts and ideas that seek destruction. These qualities are not innate, Fraiberg writes, but are products of education. "In the case of moral development, the judgments, standards, values of the beloved person are taken over by the child, made part of his own personality." By our words and deeds we caregivers help children find civilized solutions for meeting their needs and for solving issues of rivalry--the route to responsible adulthood and hopefully, a peaceful world. Let's hear your stories.

Reference: Selma H. Fraiberg. The Magic Years, Understanding and Handling the Problems of Early Childhood. Simon & Schuster, N.Y., First Fireside Edition, 1996.


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