Eliza Doolittle of “My Fair Lady” fame sings a song about words. With a few changes this song could well have been written for young children to sing to their parents and teachers. With apologies to Lerner and Loewe, here is the children’s version:
Words! Words! Words! I’m so sick of words!
I get words all day through;
Is that all you blighters can do?
Don’t talk of what you want me to do,
Don’t waste my time,
Don’t talk of good!
Don’t talk of bad!
Don’t talk at all!
Never do I want to hear another word.
There isn’t one I haven’t heard.
Here we are together in what ought to be a dream;
Say one more word and I’ll scream.
Please don’t “expl’ine,”
Show me! Show me!
Don’t wait until wrinkles and lines
Pop out all over my brow,
Show me now!
Parents need to remember that young children are concrete thinkers. Telling a young child to be a good boy or girl may not result in any change of behavior because the concept of “good” is too abstract. If you want your child to put his toys away and that is your definition of being “good”, it is best to show the child exactly what you want him to do. Say while showing: “When you are finished playing, put the dolls on the shelf and the trucks in the box.” This demonstration will accomplish more than merely saying, “Be a good boy and clean up.”
In the same vein, telling a child to clean up his room may result in your becoming angry because the room is not left as you thought you requested. The child may feel he did follow orders because he picked up everything off the floor and put the clutter on the bed instead. Go to his room with him and demonstrate while saying: “Put all of your socks in the top drawer and all of your shirts in the next drawer and put the dirty clothes in the hamper.” It helps to walk the child gently through this sequence several times if you want it repeated. Young children require repetition to achieve mastery.
When a child does not behave in what you think is an appropriate way, before taking negative action, stop and ask yourself how much he understood what you expected of him. Were you too abstract? One mother relates that her young son came through the backdoor and into the kitchen with muddy boots. She became angry and shouted, “Don’t you ever come into the kitchen with muddy boots again.” The next time he had muddy boots, he came through the front door and ruined the living room carpet in the process. This mother learned her lesson and now demonstrates while saying a sentence like: “When you have muddy boots, take them off outside before coming into the house.”
Adults will make their own and their children’s lives easier if they remember to ask themselves: “Does he understand what I mean or am I being too abstract?” “Am I spending time on activities which are too abstract for him at his present stage of development?” “Would this time be better spent on other activities?”
Adults need to remember that most children would do what they are supposed to do if they knew how. My son’s first paper from kindergarten had the words “Be Neater” written at the top. Besides the fact that he did not know how to read, he also did not know what “neater” meant much less how to be it. He had no concept of what he needed to do to please the teacher. The teacher would have been much more helpful to the concrete-thinking child, if she had pointed out the letters he had made correctly and asked him to make more like that. Or, she could have shown him what a “neater” paper looked like and take him through the steps to achieve a similar paper.
We owe it to our young concrete-thinking children to take into account their stage of development in order for them to learn and to feel good about themselves as learners. In their own time and in a nurturing environment, they will eventually move up to the next, higher level of abstract thinking.