What Children Learn

Saturday, 02 April 2011 02:16

Saga May 2007 (not published)

What Children Learn 

Small children have to learn a great many very complicated things. They have to learn that some marks on a piece of paper are nothing more than that, while other marks stand for certain sounds, and that these sounds together can make a word. They have to learn the mysteries of counting and dividing things into groups. Then there are the rules being good – doing as you are told, being clean, not being aggressive, sharing, and taking your turn. It is often hard to understand why some things are good and others bad. Even harder can be learning about how to keep yourself safe. It is easy to see why running on to a busy road is dangerous but why is it important to wear a hat? 

Past generations of parents did not spend much time thinking about how best to explain these matters to small children. Children were told what to do, and when they failed to do as they were told, they were punished, often with a slap. Nowadays parents are taught, quite correctly, that punishing a child for not doing what he should is the least efficient way of teaching a child how he should behave. Where rules need to be followed, parents should be calm and firm. However, it is not enough simply to tell children what they should do. Children need an explanation of why this is so. Pitching an explanation at a level which is accurate as far as it goes but which the child can understand can be difficult. On an Australian beach I was very impressed with the way a mother spoke calmly and firmly to her three-year-old son. She said, ‘If you don’t wear your hat we’ll have to go home.’ At three it is impossible to understand about the dangers of getting skin cancer but a three-year-old does understand about having to leave a nice place and go home. There was only one thing wrong. The mother was dressed in a bikini. No hat. She had forgotten that children learn most not from what adults say but from what they do.