Some Common Assumptions about Children

EXPLORATION:  As you read the following list of what I claim are common assumptions about children, consider (or invite children to consider) their implications. Which of them do you share, and which of them do you believe to be true? What experiences have you had that might confirm or contradict them? Are there any you’ve assumed without being conscious of doing so?  Were you right to make such assumptions?

  • Children have limited understanding and short attention spans.  These are inescapable aspects of childlike thinking, and inherent in human development, which proceeds throughout childhood in clear stages.  At any given stage, a child is capable of understanding only a certain amount.  
  • Children are innocent by nature, blissfully naive and inherently good.  They can’t really understand what evil is or what sexuality is.
  • Children are emotionally vulnerable, easily upset, and often permanently damaged by exposure to ugly or painful matters.  They respond to depictions of evil or deprivation not by becoming evil but by having nightmares, or even by developing permanent neuroses.
  • Children are inherently wild–born animal-like and not yet disciplined or cajoled into understanding the need for law, order, and self-control that keeps us all safe and sane in our dealings with each other.  Exposing children to evil or violence in books merely encourages their most basic, most unfortunate, and most uncontrollable tendencies.
  • While neither inherently innocent nor inherently wild, children are nevertheless not yet fully formed.  They are pliable, and therefore, highly suggestible, and they are prone to dangerous experimentation.  They respond to depictions of violence by becoming violent themselves.  Conversely, thank goodness, they also respond to depictions of good by becoming good.  Children will become whatever they read about.
  • Any or all of the above happen because children are egocentric.  They assume that whatever they read is somehow actually about themselves–about who they are or who they ought to be.  And they aren’t interested in matters outside their own immediate experience.  They dislike stories about people unlike themselves living in places unlike their own.
  • On the other hand, though, children are highly imaginative.  The adults in their lives have not yet persuaded them that there’s only one version of truth–the one adults call reality.  There’s a direct connection between childlike thinking, imagination, fantasy, and creativity.
  • Or maybe there isn’t.  Children are inherently conservative.  They have a basic dislike for thinking and learning, for experiencing anything different from what they know and like already.  In order to teach them anything, we have to make learning fun.  Without spoonfuls of sugar, the medicine will be rejected.
  • While all children are childlike, boys are different from girls.  Children are inherently gendered–boys are boyish and girls girlish from birth.  A child’s gender determines his or her activities, interests and tastes.

Why the Assumptions Can’t Be the Whole Truth

Nicholas Tucker describes the principles of selecting books for children this way:

Following Piaget, I shall chiefly describe the more typical ways in which children seem to approach and make sense of their stories at various ages, leaving particular details–of how individuals or whole cultures can then sometimes react to such stories quite differently–to one side (5-6).

It’s revealing that, in order to work with descriptions of typical children of specific ages, Tucker has to characterize individual and cultural differences as “details” to be left out of consideration. These are pretty huge details; and that suggests the main problem of working with common assumptions or general theories of childhood. They are generalizations, and generalizations rarely apply in all cases. In a less interesting world, it might be safe to say something like, “This is a book that six-year-olds will enjoy.” But as real experience of the real and more interesting world tells anyone willing to move past ideological assumptions, some six-year-olds like a particular book, and many others hate it. In the real world, children have as few generally true group characteristics as do, say, all lawyers, or all university students. In this world, each child is his or her own person, an individual being whose values and abilities are influenced both by heredity and environment–an environment which inevitably includes specific and highly variable class positionings, gender expectations, and so on. When people make assumptions about the similarity of all six-year-olds, they lose sight of the immense significance in the process of literary response of individual differences and of the differences between various specific groups and communities.

Belonging to some of those groups is likely to have a profound effect on how children respond to life and literature. When people speak of the innocence of childhood, they forget about the 40 million children in the world who live on the streets, without homes or parents or enough food. Most of the generalizations about the kind of literature children can “relate” to imply the degree to which people assume that all children live the comfortable, protected lives of white, middle-class North Americans. And while people often know that isn’t true, they manage to forget it when they talk about choosing books. They also often manage to forget–or, perhaps, try to hide from themselves–the extent to which the innocent bliss of even fairly well-off children is a fiction. Nancy Weiss suggests that Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care, for many decades the most popular guide for parents, is such a fiction:

This world of rearing the young . . . is free of dissonance or conflict, or the recognition of poverty or cultural difference. Such a world has invented a motherhood that excludes the experience of many mothers” (303).

It also excludes the experience of the many children who are sexually or physically abused or otherwise deprived of a context in which to remain innocent.

Claiming to believe that children are innocent, in fact, many adults are upset or annoyed when they encounter children who are not, and view such children as unchildlike. What these adults really believe is not that children necessarily are innocent but that they should be. Indeed, when people express any of the assumptions listed earlier, the phrase “children are” often really means “children should be”–a confusion of what they’d like to be true with what actually is true. This confusion of the ideal with the actual is another characteristic that marks these ideas about childhood as ideological in nature.

The confusion has its dangers. Most significantly, it defines what the assumptions declare to be true as the normal state of affairs from which any other sort of behavior is seen as a divergence, an aberration, even an abnormalcy. In what might be called the tyranny of the norm, children who know too much to be considered innocent are peculiar or dangerous. And if children are as a matter of course believed to be highly imaginative, then a child unable or unwilling to indulge in imaginative play will often be seen to be strangely deficient, perhaps even in need of professional assistance. Yet, the psychologist Robert S. Albert asserts, “The facts tell us that we generally overestimate the ease and naturalness of the development of creativity in childhood” (52). The ideal is not in fact the norm.

A note about developmental theories

As they develop, children might in fact pass through something like the stages described by Piaget, Erikson, Kohlberg, and other experts, albeit, perhaps, in somewhat different ways. But a closer investigation of research on development throws significant doubt on that conclusion. It might not be so scientific after all. According to Charles Brainerd,

Until the mid-1970s, Piaget’s ideas dominated the landscape the way Freudian thinking once ruled abnormal psychology.  Since then, however, the picture has changed dramatically.  Empirical and conceptual objections to the theory have become so numerous that it can no longer be regarded as a positive force in mainstream cognitive-developmental research, though its influence remains profound in cognate fields such as education and sociology.  

In other words: theories of development might well be more a matter of ideology than they are an accurate representation of childhood.

You can read more about these matters in the book by me and Mavis Reimer, The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, described here, and still, surprisingly, available here.

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