You Tell Me: Unreasonable Parenting II
In my last post I talked about the shortcomings of trying to reason with young children when it comes to their behavior. I imagine many readers wondered how exactly I came to the conclusions I did, so I thought I’d share the specific train of thought back to where it originated. What sparked the idea for that post was my reconsidering of several works by Rabbi Abraham Heschel - which in turn was inspired by my investigation of the science of attention which included material from Adele Diamond who is a professor of developmental cognitive neuroscience at the University of British Columbia, which I found myself reading after I had consideredthe work of Sam Harris “The End of Faith, a Letter to a Christian Nation.”
To review: I started with material arguing against the existence of God, which led me to research the functioning of the brain, which pointed me to the work of an Orthodox Jewish theologian. Sam Harris would be disappointed in me.
But to the point. I had promised a followup to the ‘Because I said So’ parenting article and I aim to deliver. Following the ‘because I said so’ stage of parenting is the ‘you tell me’ stage.
Jean Piaget’s great contribution to our understanding of the cognitive development of children includes an apt description of the final stage in which children grasp abstract concepts. He calls this stage the ‘Formal Operational’ stage and gives the range in age from approximately 11 - 16 years old and beyond (many current authors on the subject argue rather convincingly that abstract thinking ability may continue to develop indefinitely). It is in this stage that it is best for parents to shift their parenting style to support this development in their child. But first, let’s explore the best litmus test I’ve found to determine if your child is indeed in this stage and gauge how well developed their abstract reasoning is.
When presented a problem requiring resolution or a question of ‘why’ or ‘how,’ parents should occasionally respond with ‘you tell me.’ The desired result of this question is not primarily that the child give a correct answer. Rather, it is to determine if the child is able work out on their own a potential response and, if so, are they able to work out more than one response for the topic at hand. Let me give an example from my own thirteen year old son.
With Isaac, any question or problem is likely to be in regards to sports. A few years ago he asked me ‘dad, do you think the Vikings are going to trade Adrian Peterson?’ My actual answer to the question would have been a simple ‘yes.’ Instead, in order to facilitate abstract thinking, I asked ‘what do you think?’ (a useful version of ‘you tell me’). He proceeded to make a cogent argument for trading him that included his age, potential injuries and potential draft picks from a trade. It was clear he was able to consider a future scenario - a hallmark of abstract thought.
But I didn’t stop there.
‘What about letting him be a free agent?’
I’ve always enjoyed witnessing the mental lock up of a pre-teen, and my son didn’t disappoint. He was able to abstractly consider one scenario or the other but not both at once to compare them. His final answer was ‘I don’t know, it’s hard to think about!’
At the time of writing, he is now 13 years old and was able to articulate several potential scenarios and strategies for all NFL teams on day 1 of the draft. He has come a long way. And he probably isn’t doing his actual homework now that I think about it.
It should be noted, though, that training in abstract thinking begins long before children enter this stage. Parents can help exercise their child’s cognitive muscles long before they are able to independently use them. As Abraham Heschel said ‘the act teaches you the meaning of the act.’ Some examples of how a parent can manually engage this thinking process for children as young as three include:
1. Identify patters. Using several items of alternating colors practice aligning them with your child and help them predict which color comes next. Red, blue, red, blue, red…BLUE! While it’s not truly abstract thought as concrete items are involved it does reinforce the concept of prediction.
2. Play pretend…but do a bad job! When playing pretend children are assigning roles or characters to themselves and others employing symbolic function; what Piaget describes as a subset of the ‘Pre-Operational stage.’ The goal is to help a child transition from assigning a metaphysical concept to a concrete person to contrasting two metaphysical concepts. For example: when pretending to be a police officer, start putting out fires and rescuing cats from trees. The result is a child having to analyze and identify that the concept of policeman and firefighter are incongruent and they’ll correct you. Doing so has required them to work an initial step towards abstract thought. My kids must think I’m daft as I’m seemingly never able to remember which Power Ranger I am.
3. Thinking out loud with your kids. Especially as it concerns those kids who are approaching the transition to the Formal Operational stage. Start with very simple decisions or problems and involve you child in coming to a conclusion. Simply thinking out loud with an 8 year old about deciding what you’d like to make for dinner and the steps you’ll have to go through to make that happen is surprisingly affective. ‘I’d like to have grilled chicken tonight. So that means I’ll need to go to the store by, what do you think… 4? So I can get charcoal and chicken to be back in time to start the grill at 5. Does that sound right to you?’
Try employing these simple tips for a few weeks and see if you notice a difference in your child’s ability to think abstractly!