Thinking children who use their conscience and consciousness to change themselves and their behavior are amazing. We make such a nuisance of talking about how undeveloped young people’s brains are, even as we speak about twenty-somethings and their lack of abilities because of their yet-fully-developed brains and “emerging adulthood”. Sometimes science obstructs common sense. It’s not that science is not valuable; of course it is a major contributor to the development of Western society and culture.
Yet how often are the “experts” (including science) plain-out wrong? And how often do the experts themselves disagree? True evidential science ought to be agreed on by critically thinking people. In this case here, we can distract ourselves from the real brain-power and abilities of children by focusing too narrowly on their undeveloped brain limitations.
I was recently in a private voice lesson with a seven year-old who I have had the privilege of working with for a couple years now. When she told me excitedly that she was wearing a special necklace that meant a lot to her at the beginning of the lesson, I acknowledged that I too love essential oils necklaces. Our lesson commenced and we had a wonderful, fruitful, and improved lesson from the recent lessons that were not so focused. When I said then that I thought she might want to perhaps wear that necklace to all her lesson since she did such a strong lesson that day, she corrected me. “It’s not because of the necklace Mr. Mark”. I asked her what it was then. She said, “I thought about how stressed you were last week about how unfocused I was and I decided to change”. I had to just stop for a moment and take in her wisdom and power.
I then acknowledged her insight and behavioral change and offered a small bit of praise. Lots of praise she didn’t need; perhaps no praise would’ve been better. Children do not need praise when they hit-it-on-the-head, as educator John Holt offered to us many years ago in How Children Fail. He gave us the idea that maybe we are actually “stealing a bit of their glory” in praising them. In any case, over thirty years of teaching has shown me that he was right and we often praise children’s accomplishments in unnecessary ways.
Children can do remarkable things with their tiny, yet-developed brains. This student’s actions demonstrate that fact loudly and succinctly. She listened to her teacher and thought about it later by herself, and then because she cares, she made a change all on her own. She learned, she got it, she understood, and she made the change. At seven years of age.
We debate when to give “children” certain responsibilities – when to allow them to drink, to kill in war, to buy alcohol, to rent a car, to purchase a gun, etc. It seems relative. In 1977, my senior year in high school, we could legally buy and drink alcohol. With a March birthday, I was legally allowed to drink for the latter half of my senior year, at Prom, Graduation parties, and on Friday nights or any other night. That seems unthinkable in today’s culture. In 1954 when my parents were undergrads at MSU they were allowed to smoke cigarettes in their college classrooms during class. That too seems unthinkable today. When former president Jimmy Carter was ten years-old he drove his family truck to do chores on the farm. When George Washington was seventeen he was appointed to be a county surveyor. American Admiral David Farragut was 12 years old when, during the War of 1812, he was given the assignment to bring a ship captured by the Essex safely to port. And of course the young athletes at the Olympics remind us that teens can accomplish super-human feats even though their brains are so undeveloped and emotionally driven at that age. And let us remember that Queen Cleopatra became a world ruler as a teenager! She was expected to rule, and rule she did!
Experience teaches that what we expect from children is what we get most often. When we expect children to act like “children”, they do so gladly; When we expect children to act responsibly, compassionately, and intelligently, they do so gladly also. Actually they prefer that. Children like to be grown-up, like to act grown-up, and like it when they are treated as if they are grown-up. Often the only impediment to their acting more grown-up is the lack of treatment and expectation from the adults in their lives.
Moments like the one this delightful seven year-old gifted me are why I continue to do the hard work of teaching after thirty years.