Working in the school system, I often hear children being asked, “Don’t you know any better?” or “Why didn’t you make a better choice?” These questions are usually met with a confused expression. Then these children look at the ceiling or the floor, searching for a response that won’t get them deeper into trouble.
The truth is that there are a lot of children who don’t know better. They have often made the best choice they could, given the information, skills, and resources they had at the time.
I think we often forget what it was like to be a child. We look at the world around us through the lenses of our own years of accumulated knowledge and experience and expect children to be able to view the world in the same way that we do. I think it’s also safe to acknowledge that, despite adults’ experiences making decisions and positive life choices, we fall short much of the time. We can’t hold children to a higher standard than we hold ourselves, particularly given that we have this advantage over them. We can’t expect them to behave like tiny adults.
Too often we think of what we would do in a given situation and wonder why the child didn’t do the same thing. I’m guilty of it myself. Try to rewind the clock and think about some of the choices you made when you were the ages of the children with whom you work. I could sit here and tell you that I was the perfect child that followed all the rules and never got in trouble, but I would be lying up a fierce storm. Engaging with the younger you who made those mistakes helps you give some grace to the children of today who are making their own.
So many events in these children’s lives are new to them. They don’t have tried-and-true strategies for how to react in these novel situations. Additionally, we don’t always know what children are being taught and exposed to at home. If a parent encourages a child to stand up for him or herself and fight, while a teacher tells the child that a physical response is never the answer, what choice does the child make?
“Knowing better” looks different depending on context. It’s also important to acknowledge that children’s brains are not fully developed and won’t be until they’re well into their twenties! Their frontal lobes (essential for those executive functioning skills like self-monitoring, staying focused, and emotional self-regulation) are one of the last parts of their brains to reach maturity.
We can use moments where children didn’t make the best decision as teachable moments. We can discuss the consequences of their decisions, brainstorm alternatives, and plan for future situations that may prove similar. Or we can just punish. What’s likely to have the better outcome and promote more positive child development?
In the counseling profession, empathy is of the utmost importance. Empathy is the ability to be able to step into someone else’s shoes and view their world from their eyes. I believe empathy is critical not just in the counseling profession but for all professionals who work closely with young people.
As I have begun writing books from children’s points-of-view, I have found myself getting more and more in touch with who I was as a child and what it’s like to see the world through a child’s eyes. This has helped me not only craft relatable stories, but it has also improved my counseling work with children. I encourage everyone who works with children to remember to occasionally pause and try to think like a child. I think you’ll be glad you did.
Checkout Jeff's first book with the Boys Town Press, My Name's Sammy, and I'm No Snitch. A story that teaches kids the difference between snitching and reporting and when to talk to an adult.