As a mother of three teenagers, I have the pleasure and the challenge of seeing many concepts in my field of developmental psychology emerge right before my eyes through the actions and language of my children. Case in point: in our household, we are now deep into the period of what Piaget (one of the original authorities on the minds of children) called Idealism and Criticism (or some such phrasing-Piaget wrote in French, so it is likely that this description is even more poetic than in the translated English).
The main idea of this period of development is that, as we head into our teen years, we become capable of abstract thinking and, as a result, can not only understand hypothetical concepts, but also develop opinions about them. I should mention that Allison Gopnik at Berkeley has exciting new work suggesting that children can execute hypothesis-generation in their toddler years, rather than having to wait until puberty hits. Nonetheless, under my own roof each day is another opportunity to see how Piaget was correct, in the opinion department at least.
For example, over our holiday celebrations for Christmas we attended church, opened gifts, recalled the Nativity Story, and then verged into a heated debate as a family about the reception vs. giving of gifts. One of our children adamantly insisted that a person shouldn’t care at all about receiving gifts, and that Christmas could not be truly experienced the way it was intended unless a person only gave gifts, rather than receiving some too. I should mention that she offered this perspective with adamant focus while clutching the Once Upon A Time calendar she’d received that very morning with a forceful grip, lest it be pried away by one of her siblings as demonstration of her argument.
Did I mention that, at this point, we had more than a full week ahead of us with the children tumbling about the house, arguing over fine points of language and policy like they were talking heads on a cable news program.
A few examples over the ensuing days include:
1) Our two daughters fighting over the definition of “now.” One argued that the phrase “I’m doing it now” implied a completion of a task (such as moving one’s books off the other’s desk) , whereas the other argued that ‘now’ offered a broader timeframe, somewhere between the hour of it being uttered and eventually.
2) Our son stating that rinsing 5 pounds of rice rather than the 1 and 1/2 cups called for in the recipe he was cooking was really a blessing, as it created opportunities for future culinary endeavors (i.e., much rice pudding).
3)A heated debate amongst all of us at the dinner table over whether they could ever serve in the military, which evolved into further arguments about whether soldiers were harmed by the act of killing enemies in combat, which then further descended into a chaotic discussion of whether killing anyone was every justified, to which our middle daughter stated matter-of-factly that it wasn’t, and our youngest and oldest offered that it could be, and neither were willing to provide support for their side except that they were right. Keep in mind, my husband and I were caught in the midst of this, trying to guide graduated perspectives on these complex topics through hypothetical examples, to which our children were entirely dismissive (Idealism and Criticism, indeed).
And the main message I receive as I see my children’s minds blossoming into dense forests of neural circuitry that both advance and limit their thinking (their brains won’t be ‘adult-like’ until 25 years or so!) is how wonderful and supportive my parents were of my own developing perspective on the world when I was younger, and how annoying I must have been in my insistence that I understood the way the world worked, and they didn’t. In other words, seeing my children take these gigantic leaps into the adult world of thought reminds me how empowering and yet scary it can be as a teen. How disruptive these new ways of examining the world can be to a child’s sense of comfort and stability.
So, with this New Year roaring in soon, my resolution is to try and hold onto that empathy and try to remain compassionate when dealing with the unwavering opinions of my children, rather than exasperated. Because, as all of us who have grown into adults can attest, the time for seeing the world in infinite shades of gray will come sooner than we think, and the feeling of assurance that we can change the world through our ideas will never be stronger than when we first realized there was a world out there in need of change.