Putting Development First

children different ages
If there is one thing that distinguishes my work and groups from others that may have overlapping philosophies or values, it is that I am a serious, devoted, and passionate developmentalist, and my work and advice is constantly and squarely grounded in child development–what we know about the path, trajectory, and idiosyncratic nature of children’s lives and brains at different ages. Of course, development does not happen at exactly the same rate and milestones do not happen at exactly the same way at the same time in every child. There is a wide range of individual developmental variation. AND YET, at the same time, there are features of development that are relatively universal, barring significant physical and neurobiological organic differences that land an individual outside the range for typical development (which for these purposes, is more rare than most people want to admit.)

Sometimes people say that we should treat and talk to children the way we treat and talk to adults, that that’s what respect is. I disagree (and for the record, I don’t think that’s what the people who those ideas are attributed to agreed either.)  Rather, we should treat and talk to children with the same degree of respect and regard (but not necessarily the same content) as we would an adult, while meeting the child where they are developmentally.Understanding children and their development is a critical part of respecting children, in my view. Understanding that young children are not simply small adults, who can fully understand and make sense of things in the same way that adults can. [Can they mimic and imitate and reflect the people around them?  Of course.  It’s not the same thing.]  Committing ourselves to learning about and understanding the neurobiological and developmental realities of children at different ages is precisely what allows us to meet them where they are, on THEIR playing field. Without that, we project on to them and attribute to them traits and capabilities that they not only do not possess, but that they are not supposed to possess.

And no, understanding the idiosyncracies and limitations of development does not mean that children are “less than” or missing something or that we’re not seeing them as highly capable or competent. Quite to the contrary–it allows us to see them as perfectly capable and competent for where they are and what they can do and how their brains work at their current stage of life.

It is so easy to deceive ourselves. To believe that young children fully and deeply understand abstract ideas simply because they can repeat the words and ideas that surround them, or even seem to understand them. Repetition and imitation are endemic to early childhood.  And to a developmentalist, that is wholly different from the particular sort of understanding that so many adults attribute to them, looking as we do through our adult lens.  And all the while, we ignore the history and massive body of research in child development that offers us the amazing opportunity to understand and admire how our children’s minds do operate at each age.

In my work, I do more than a fair bit of reminding parents and professionals of developmental realities.  In my experience, an overwhelming number simply do not believe me.  They believe I am advocating “talking down” to children or that I somehow simply have not met, in my forty plus years working with thousands of children, the children they know or live with, the ones who genuinely do understand abstract complicated adult topics at two or three or four. Worse yet, many readers believe that I am not respecting the amazing competence and capability of young children.  While I can see this sort of misunderstanding, there is nothing more respectful than acknowledging and holding the developmental realities of a child’s life and learning and understanding, seeing them and valuing them just as they are, honoring who they are and where they are and how their brains work, with the awareness and trust that as they grow, their readiness and understanding will predictably evolve and become more complex and deep.  To be concrete about it, there is no urgency to making sure that a 4 year old thoroughly understands a concept that we highly value, as with simple repeated modeling and exposure, they will acquire that depth and sophistication of understanding by 8 or 9, simply by virtue of development.

A few examples, in hopes that this will make a bit more sense:

No matter how bright or delayed an individual child is, for example, their cognitive outlook on the world is largely egocentric (and limited in some forms by that egocentricity) until sometime between age 5 and 7. This is relatively universal in development, which means it is true for all children, across all cultures.  There are not exceptions for children who are unusually empathic or who live in more or less individualistic cultures.  Egocentricity does not exist as a black and white feature–children do show signs of awareness of others (egocentrism is NOT the same thing as selfishness!)  And yet, when “put to the test,” we find they are in fact limited by this reality of brain development.  Most of us have seen it first hand, even when we are not aware.   Witness a three year old riding rear facing in the back seat of the car who shouts out “Cows!!” as they see cows by the side of the road.  All is well until we say “Oh, did you see cows?  I didn’t see them!” and they respond “Right THERE!”  Perhaps they’re pointing, there in the back seat.  Perhaps they’re just looking in the direction of the cows.  Perhaps they’re asking us to look somewhere that we can’t possibly look because of needing to look forward while driving.  In any case, they are certain that we are magically able to see what they see, or see where they are pointing, because in the mind of a three year old, what they see is what everyone sees.  That’s what egocentrism is.  Trying to explain otherwise to them is all well and good and if you want to do it, feel free–just hold that they won’t really “get it.”

Another example:  When children are three and four years old, one of children’s primary tasks, driven by the typical and universal trajectory of brain development, is to organize the world and put EVERYTHING in categories in relatively rigid, concrete, and often binary ways (especially by adult standards.) Sorting by color, by size, by label, by characteristic, dividing things into good/bad, etc. Exceptions will come, for sure–but they will come later. This is how a 3 and 4 year old’s brain works.   I call it the “file cabinet” stage of life, in which they move through the world sorting and classifying things into file folders in their mind and putting them away where they belong.  With rare exceptions, all children do this, often with a passion, during these years. There are not exceptions for children who “seem to clearly understand that things can be both good and bad” or children who may view things in resricted ways that may make us feel uncomfortable as adults.  This is the way learning happens, the way that knowledge progresses–from general to specific.  In early childhood, we begin by sorting things into rigid, cFiling Cabinetoncrete, broad categories, and as our brains develop, we are gradually and progressively able to “refile” things by finer and finer categories, seeing where rules and categories apply and where they do not.  The important piece here is that this is something we can trust–development progresses.  If children do not understand or seem resistant to the idea that all shades of blue are still called blue, and that blue can be divided into LOTS more file folders, it is not cause for concern–that will come with development.  First, all things that are blue are blue.  Then all things that are blue are either light blue or dark blue.  Then all things that are blue are light blue or dark blue or blue with a little bit of a different color in them  (bluish-greenish, blueish-purplish).   Then, one day, at 7 or 8 (or later), the 3 or 4 or 5 file folders become 15 or 20–turquoise, grey-blues, periwinkle, indigo.  This is the way learning progresses.   Now before you say it, YES, some 3 year olds can learn and refer to a hundred colors by their more specific names–children can learn and memorize most anything.  And yet, on some level or in some way, they are still categorizing in concrete ways. Young children do not have understanding of abstract concepts–they are literal and concrete, and their rigid categorizations or classifications does not carry value judgements or portend bias, they are simply reflections of the intense biological drive to categorize and label that is part and parcel of development at this age.  Yes, even your child.

This is a cornerstone of my work, and is at the core of how I respond the way that I do to questions about children’s behavior, understanding, and questions.  I passionately believe in, honor, respect, and LOVE the process of development.  I often tell people that for me, the most fun part of working with young children in particular, is how observable universal child development principles actually are–there are not many times in life when, with close enough observation, we can actually watch the switches go on in children’s brains, we can literally witness the nature of development (most vividly when we have not interfered with or do not try too hard to influence that natural progression.)   It doesn’t sit well with some people.  Adult lenses make us so deeply want to believe that children understand things in the way that we do or that we want them to, and we are powerfully capable of creating that narrative, even if and when it contradicts developmental realities.  We mistake children’s natural repetition or imitation of what surrounds them (also a well documented feature of development!) for deep or thorough understanding.  I understand the tension and temptation–I have experienced it myself.  Like all things, if we watch it and sit with it, it will pass of its own accord, and we can return to the stunning beauty that is development.

When I argue that an expectation is “developmentally inappropriate” at a given age or urge you to “simplify” or “get more concrete” in answering only the question that has been asked or letting a child lead, I am not insulting your child’s intelligence or capability or somehow implying that children are “less than” adults, or that your goals for your child are unimportant or misguided, or challenging your idea that your child is somehow outside the norm.  I am inviting you to embrace your child as they are, where they are, not expecting them to be different,  I am asking you to be patient that processing and integration of information is different at different ages.  I am wishing, on behalf of your child, and all children, that they have childhoods, filled with “childish” views and explorations rather than filled with adult agendas.  I am urging you to have confidence and trust in development.  I am reminding you that childhood is a marathon, not a sprint–our children do not need to know everything all the time or as early as possible.  There is time for everything, and everything in its time.