November 21, 2009

Child Development in Action

I was at the park a few days ago and observed something so developmentally text-book, interesting and, frankly, cute that I can't help but recount it.  A small girl, preschool aged, was playing in the sand, and tossed it gently a few times, not more than a few inches from her hand.  Easily seeing where this was leading, her mother promptly told her not to throw the sand; two, three, four times, she warned her persistent child against it, in a tired, patient tone. Finally, the child approached her older sibling, playfully, with a handful of sand, and the mother caught her arm.  She gently but firmly insisted that no more sand was to be thrown.

This time the child listened, un-distracted, and understood that her mother was serious.  Another girl of about the same age happened past the sand box a moment later.  When the strange girl looked down at the sand, the first girl informed her, authoritatively, "You can't throw the sand."

Her mother rolled her eyes and smiled sheepishly at me as the two girls left the sand box to play elsewhere.  Silly and backward as it seems, this stage of development is so important!  Annoying or ridiculous as adults may find it, this behavior really means that the child is absorbing and accepting rules and limitations.  And having accepted them as part of the "rules of the world," she is eager to keep others in line and prevent them from making mistakes.

A child's sense of justice at this brief but beautiful stage is strict and heavily enforced.  Everything must be fair and even for everyone, good things and bad things, rules and restrictions.  This is why some children may engage in not-so-desirable behaviors among their peers: bossing other children around, enforcing rules (perhaps invented ones) obsessively, and ultimately tattling when other children don't comply with the way the world "should" work.

But parents and teachers shouldn't be discouraged with this stage: it means that the child is developing a conscience.  Now, right and wrong are rigid rules that must be observed, but with guidance the child will begin to have their own internal compass.  And that is a wonderful thing to see.

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