Tuesday, April 7, 2015

What Do Children Understand, and When?

There’s that repeated question adults, and kid-lit writers specifically, often posit: will kids this-or-that age get this?
Kids understand plenty. That’s where I start from.

Just the other day, while I was in line in the bank, a baby in a stroller with his mom behind me showed me his shoe.
“Shoe!” he said, pointing at it.
I confirmed by repeating, “Very good. Shoe.”
“Eye!” he said, pointing at his eye.
“Yes, very good,” said I. “Eye.”
“Nose!” That was his nose. I confirmed his word, again.
Then he stuck his tongue out. I was waiting for him to say, “Tongue!” but he just kept it there. Then he laughed.

Fortunately he was irresistibly cute. I think he was about 15 months old or so. He’s going to be quite an operator, or at the very least a lion-tamer, I predict.
My adorable little buddy from the bank had mastered the art of excreting the reactions he wanted, and reveled in his ability to engage.

Children don’t have the vocabulary we have, though their passive vocabulary is greater than most of us imagine. They don’t know history, or geography, and they are not connected as they will be after puberty to the procreative impulse. But they understand and, I believe, excel at non-verbal cues.

Children understand other people. It is their business to. I have vivid recollections as a child, watching someone say one thing, when I just knew he didn't mean it. I sensed what people felt and it was easy. I couldn't believe adults around me couldn't see what I saw. Then I grew up, and it isn't as easy anymore. I second guess my perception all the time, and miss.

How many times have you heard, “I don't think kids will get this?” It’s too facile to fall into that trap. But how can we tell?

Personally, I find that different kids, like different people, get different things at different times. The key word is, ahmm, “different.” But there are a few ways I have learned that keep me from underestimating younger human beings’ ability to understand.

The first, and the one I return to because it’s the best I got, is remembering me as a child at that age.

The second is observing my own kids and their friends. This is helpful for writing dialogue uttered by younger people. But it is not as effective for gauging their internal grasp, which much exceeds their verbal expression.

The distant third is listening to feedback that challenges kids' understanding or interest. I always weigh it, and sometime revise. But it is a lightweight consideration after the first two.


  1. I loved hearing about that toddler in the stroller at the bank. What a kid! An interesting post. I've run into a similar problem with puzzles--i.e., there have been editors who thought a puzzle I'd created was too hard for the targeted age. Since I had taught the targeted age, I didn't agree. But I tend to give kids credit for being able to tackle much harder puzzles than lots of people.
    Your suggestion to remember ourselves at that age is a good one, except unfortunately some of us don't have the same vivid memories of childhood that you do. You are blessed.

  2. I agree, Mirka. It makes me think of being in a foreign country, too. Some people here, although they can't speak English well, do understand what I'm saying. And from an educational standpoint, with the Common Core Standards, they want kids to determine the meaning of vocabulary words from the context of the sentence or sentences around it. Meaning, don't water down all the hard words in your story... Just my thoughts.

  3. My daughter amazes me with how analytical she can be a eight years old. Kids understand a lot, and I think they can handle a lot too. When I was teaching eighth grade, my supervisor told me he was amazed at how much I could get my students to accomplish in a given class period. My reaction was that adults need to stop underestimating kids. They're capable of so much, and when you treat them like adults, they'll rise to the occasion—sometimes more so than adults would. ;)

    1. You were the sort of Eighth grade teacher I wish I had, Kelly.

  4. Great story about the toddler. I think kids are smarter than they let on. My son went into kindergarten knowing how to read. The teachers had no idea because he was quiet and entertained himself. And as for writing, I will not dumb it down ... kids are smart.

  5. I agree kids are a great deal more clever and intuitive than many adults realize. When they are treated respectfully and as equals, amazing abilities come forth.

  6. Kids shouldn't be underestimated. One girl I tutor constantly amazes me with what she interprets from our lessons. When it is a difficult word or scenario, she will find her own way to explain to herself using clues picked up along the way. When she steers herself into another direction, she isn't afraid to ask and always there will be an adult (family or teacher) nearby to guide her. That toddler you met was adorable!