by Dave Marks (National Writing Institute)
There's a saying about the way people think that makes sense to me. It's this: If you can't put it into words, you don't understand it. I've had students tell me for years, "I know what I mean, but I can't put it into words." What this meant to me was that that young person didn't really understand the idea well enough to express it clearly.- We can start very early with our children helping them understand ideas, but it does take time, patience and effort. One important step in this process is insisting that they say what they mean. It's a mistake to wait till they're teenagers before asking them to be logical and articulate their feelings and ideas. You could state this the first time you hear, "Because," or "Just because." That's an effort on the child's part not to have to think through the idea or situation. A thoughtful response on your part might be, "No, I don't accept “because” as an answer. Tell me why you feel this wa?"
This is just a minor point, but it can give you an insight into your child's thinking process. Of course, then you also have to be responsible with your answers to your child's questions. You can't answer a question with, "Because I said so," or, "I'm your mother and what I say goes," or, "That's just the way it's going to be," or, "Don't worry about that now, you'll understand when you're older." These are just adult ways of avoiding thinking. It's a parent's way to say, "Just because."
Your children will understand what you mean when you tell them that they have to be responsible for what they think and say if you're that way with them. When they want to know why you won't let them do something, you have a good opportunity to demonstrate thoughtful answers to questions. Look at the difference in these two examples of ways to respond to a child's request for a cookie.
1. "Mom, can I have a cookie?"
"I said no. Now don't tease."
"But I'm really hungry, please?"
"Go outside and play instead."
2. "Mom, can I have a cookie?"
"I don't think that would be a good idea. It's too near supper time. Why not wait till after we've eaten, and then you can have as many cookies as you want."
“But I'm hungry now.”
“That's good. That means that you'll want lots of supper. It'll be ready in about twenty minutes.”
“What's the difference if I eat a cookie before dinner or after dinner?"
"If you eat one before dinner, you won't want the foods that are really good for you. You need to be strong and cookies won't make you strong, they just taste good. That's why we eat them after dinner. Do you understand why I'm saying no to a cookie now?"
This takes time and considerable patience to repeatedly explain things in this way to a young child, but it helps if we understand what they want (besides cookies), which really is just two things: They want to understand their world. Small children are learning machines, and almost all of their early years are taken up with exploring with their senses and with their reasoning what their world consists of. The other thing they want is to know where the fences of their world are.
They need to know the limits past which they can't go. So we have little learning machines who are testing the world and their parents to find out what it all means and to find out how far they can explore. We have to help them with as much stimulation as is good for them and at the same time give them very clear fences past which they understand they can't travel.
When children are older and they can begin to work in a reasonable way with abstract concepts, it's a good idea to help them think through their questions and even give them questions to think through. Our child, as he was growing up, and the students I worked with for years, enjoyed thinking through ideas as a way to understand themselves and their reactions to their worlds.
When your children are old enough to work with abstract ideas, you might examine some with them. This exercise will help them articulate (put into words) what they understand. On your part, this exercise is based on your understanding of how abstract concepts guide our thinking. What I mean about abstractions in this sense are: things that we can't touch, see, taste, smell or hear which help us make decisions. Concepts like patriotism, honor, truth, justice, responsibility or fairness. An easy one to talk with teenagers about to show how abstractions guide our thinking is the idea of patriotism. Once you begin to explore an idea such as this, it becomes clear early on that young people have a very foggy notion about what it all means. And yet young people are so caught up in group identity that some of them actually cheer at replays of games on TV, cry at sports events when their teams lose, or, in some extreme cases, get into fights after the games with fans from other schools. Look at the mass fights that often follow the rugby games in Europe, or the trashing of sections of towns in our country after college or professional teams have won championships. When I've attended sports events, I've been amazed at the similarity between the frenzied cheering of the fans and the cheers and shouts at political rallies shown in movies of Hitler's early years and even at our own political conventions. When young people begin to talk about where ideas of patriotism come from, who benefits from them, who is victimized by them and what they produce, they realize that they've become pawns in a process that they might do better to think some more about. It's one thing for young people to love their country, but it's quite another to have them eager to kill people they've never heard of before just because politicians ask them to.
Young people really begin to think when they realize that wars have been fought by young men who didn't understand the politics or the economics of the conflict, and these young men on both sides of the wars loved their countries and were so patriotic that they were willing to die for them. You might find in literature, examples of people who examine abstract concepts. You might try the ideas of patriotism as examined by Masters in Spoon River Anthology with the young man who dies at Missionary Ridge and asks: "What does pro patria mean, anyway?"
I'm not suggesting that you should not teach your children to love where they live. It's natural that they should. I'm suggesting that they be taught to think about how they make decisions.
The best way I can think of showing you a way to discuss concepts like these with your children is to tell you about conversations I have had with young people. I've had ones like the one below many times with young people, and they were always frustrated by the examination and then fascinated by the logic of the talk.
As an example of what I mean and how you can use my experience with your children: When you hear one of your teenage children say, "That's not fair," you have a good opportunity to help that child understand what's meant by that abstraction. Your child should know that there have been a number of political and cultural influences which have given the Americans their concept of what's fair. Some of these influences have been:
A. The "Magna Carta" which gave us the idea that power should not be only in the hands of one man but that it should be shared;
B. "The Declaration of Independence" which states the equal rights of all persons;
C. "The Constitution of the United States" which denies special treatment to any person or group;
D. Organized sports which have given us the idea that we must all follow the same rules, and that there must be an evenness of forces in confrontation, (the same number of players of similar skill for each side);
E. Our educational systems which tell us that all people should have equal opportunities;
G. Our judicial system which is based on the concept that all people will be treated equally under the law.
If you take your child to the library and look up these influences and discuss them and their impact on your child's understanding of the work, it will open up a discussion about whether your child wants things to be fair or not.
You might talk about what your child's life would be like if the world really were fair. Have your child think about and talk with you about what it would be like if all the things in the world were equally divided among the world's people. You might look up in an almanac figures on the numbers of cars or televisions in some of the third world countries. Talk about what fairness would do to your child's food supply, education, health, life expectancy, free time, career opportunities, and material goods like television, radios, CD players, and bikes.- If you talk with your children this way or in ways similar to this, you'll open their minds to examine those abstractions that they use to make their decisions. Then you might not hear an answer to a question that sounds like this,
"I don't know, I just did it."
This Let’s Write lesson is part of the writing curriculum designed by Dave and Lea Marks founders of the National Writing Institute and authors of the popular, award-winning, “Writing Strands” creative writing series. These texts were developed primarily for homeschool use. From early childhood and special needs to texts which help students prepare for college, there is a program that will help your student write well and enjoy the process. For information on all of their excellent resources and complete programs, visit the web site: www.writingstrands.com