Disagreeing about children’s rationality

“[I]t is ludicrous to deny that there are differences between infants and even toddlers, or an infant and a 5 year old. But exactly what the differences are, I still find myself questioning.”
– Grace S.


From the archives: The original post was posted on 11th December 1994

“We all agree that children are not equal in power with their parents, but I question the idea that this is the result of ‘society as it is.’ Most of the inequality is purely the result of the physical, biological and psychological differences between children and adults.
           One of the key issues in this discussion has been whether there are any real differences between children and adults in the general area of capacity or competence. It seems ludicrous to deny the differences.”

Well, yes, it is ludicrous to deny that there are differences between infants and even toddlers, or an infant and a 5 year old. But exactly what the differences are, I still find myself questioning.

I feel that both are very aware of themselves and their surroundings. They (like some animals have demonstrated) can sense the mood/feeling/intention of what’s going on. Just as an adult can—I have had many different experiences of someone saying “No” to something I want—if I feel understood and treated with compassion, I feel differently about being thwarted than if I feel misunderstood, or that my feelings are just being dismissed or ignored.

As an adult human, I do not always make the most rational/logical decisions. I have feelings and desires that do not always fall neatly into little logical boxes. (Here is a piece of the definition of ‘rational’—does it mean being able to follow and always applying simple logic??) You seem to be using the word that way….

Children do have less experience, but saying that they lack judgment or understanding simply based on that can result in the following situations: If the child makes the sensible choices, then their actions are accepted—but if they make ‘bad’ ones, then they are ‘immature’ ‘inexperienced’ ‘unable’ to make decisions for themselves. Part of the problem is trying to force anyone into making only sensible choices. And children, in their quest for experiences, will make a wide range of choices.

“There is a distinct difference in overall cognitive ability between young children and adults. I think it arises both from physiology and from experience. Young children (say age 3 to 6) suffer from a number of mental limitations, and I will try to enumerate some.”

I understand what you are saying—but I must say that I have only found this to be true some of the time. There are many instances of my young children being able to make connections between events that are separated in space and time. But if a person expects them to ‘never understand’, then they will be looking for the results that verify that, and not even see all the times the child is applying that ability, and making good choices.

You give an example of your son being unwilling to unwrap from a damp towel to put on dry pj’s. There could be any number of things going on—he might not want to go to bed, he might dread the slap of cold that will happen between removing the towel and donning the pj’s. Just this week, I was in my bed under the covers, and experienced a very strong desire to stay there—it was cold outside the bed, and while I very well knew that I would feel fine once up and about and dressed, I did not want to experience that in-between part, where I’d feel the shock of cold air. I even acted on that desire and hid in the bed for an extra 15 minutes, before deciding to go through with getting up.

“It is impossible for them to learn on their own that if they do not brush their teeth (everyone’s favorite example) they will have dental problems in a few years. The cause and effect are too far separated in time for a young child to make the connection.”

Well, I am still not convinced. Wouldn’t they get a buildup of plaque at the dental cleanings? Wouldn’t they see that on their teeth? If someone says “This icky stuff on your teeth will eat holes into it over time” are they unable to grasp that concept? Or will they just sometimes not brush their teeth anyways. And are adults who don’t go to the dentist for teeth cleanings regularly or who don’t always brush their teeth well somehow incapable of reason? (If so, I know a lot of people who should be institutionalized, so that they will always do the right thing).

“Children are less willing to undergo brief sacrifice for long-term gain. Often, they simply do not understand the tradeoff (as in the infant protesting diaper changes or the toddler dodging a vaccination).”

While there might be some situations in which that is true, that they cannot comprehend/understand the tradeoff, I think those are actually few and far between. For example, in the one you gave, vaccination, some children will accept their parent’s explanations of why it’s being done. And even for an adult—it is not that most truly ‘understand the tradeoff’ but that they are willing to take the word of the doctors/scientists and decide to follow the suggestions. There are adults out there who choose not to vaccinate themselves or their children, even when presented with the same information that causes many parents to rush their kids to the doctor.

“Children do not understand the idea of risk. It is easy to teach them that hot things and sharp things will hurt them, but much more difficult to convince them that standing in the high chair and dancing will sometimes cause considerable pain. Perhaps this is another example of consequences that are separated too far in time from the action to allow them to easily make the connection.”

I’ve had good success in convincing my children that going into the street, standing up on highchairs, and other activities are ‘unsafe’. Sometimes my kids have fallen—and I certainly would not let them test to see if the happen to get hit by a car in the street. My 2.75 year old son has a very healthy respect for cars—he knows he has to hold my hand. Might he forget sometime and go into the street? Perhaps. Do adults get careless, too? Yes. And we let them drive cars (which adults periodically bump into things).

“Children tend to be more susceptible than adults to behaving irrationally when short on food or rest. They are also generally less aware of these effects, and sometimes demand things when overtired that they would never ask in their normal state.”

So are pregnant women. And knowing that I’m being ‘irrational’ does not one bit change my feelings or experience… and it is infuriating and invalidating if I am dismissed simply because I am pregnant. (I am not at the moment, btw). Or because I’m tired. Or because I do not appear to be following the same thought process and coming to the same logical conclusions as whomever I’m with.

“I know that Sarah wants to call this exploration ‘rational,’ but it seems to me that using the word rational to mean anything other than ‘having or exercising the ability to reason’ (American Heritage Dictionary) is broadening the concept beyond its usefulness. The interesting question for me is how a parent should work with a child as that child becomes rational, so that the child can profit from the parent’s experience but yet keeps the chance to experiment and learn on his own. But that is a topic for another day.”

I just looked up reason—there is a variety of meanings associated with it—using logic, intuition, understanding, discernment, and judgement. ‘The basis or motive for an action, decision, or conviction’. Your arguments for reason seem to be based on applying logic to the facts presented and making the right choice…. if the child makes an inferior choice, you assume it is because they are unable to comprehend something, or cannot apply logic correctly.

When I see my child making a choice that I do not understand, or judge to be inferior, I quickly determine if it’s a life or death situation. If it is, I will step in, stop the action, and try and find out what’s going on, and explain to the child why I stopped them.

If the action is one that will have irreversible reprocussions, I might also step in, and again, be checking with the child about their intentions. I might sometimes override their wishes (No, the two year old can’t cut up his clothing with the scissors, since I’m the one who has to make or buy the clothing) but when I check in, my children usually do not want to do the ‘wrong’ thing, we can usually have a conversation which results in finding a way for them to do what they want and my wishes/needs being met, too.

If the situation is less major, I then make a decision if I’m going to butt in at all. I don’t feel my kids must re-invent the wheel (just like with brushing teeth—they might not even figure it out, people didn’t for a long time), but there are also many times when it is best if I just stay out of it. We can always have a related conversation later, if it seems ‘needed’ to me. (Like, to help them make some connections that might not have been obvious to them)

I actually think that my 5 year old is competent to make most decisions regarding her being. She’s able to choose her clothing, her food, her bedtimes, her activities… She’s gaining an understanding of time and money. She is often sensible. Sometimes we have strong disagreements, and sometimes we go by her decision, sometimes by mine (almost always if the situation involves more people than just her).

This is one area that I have not seen addressed by Sarah at all. What happens when there is a disagreement about a situation and it involves multiple people? Say, I need to run an errand to have groceries for dinner, and one of my kids does not want to go. Dad is out of town, and I don’t have a babysitter handy (nor might I have the extra $$ for a babysitter just so I can run errands). This is the time when it will work for me to go (Maybe we spent the afternoon doing some kid-based activity). In that situation, Sarah seems to be suggesting that I should always honor the child’s desires over my own. This does not seem to me to be any more right than always honoring mine over the child.

See also:

Grace S., 1994, ‘Disagreeing about children’s rationality’, https://takingchildrenseriously.com/disagreeing-about-childrens-rationality

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