Ditta Oliker

Ditta M. Oliker Ph.D.

The Long Reach of Childhood

There's A Lion In The Bank

Parents Need To Understand How A Child Thinks

Posted Apr 12, 2013

          The television ad shows a mother and young daughter sitting near a lion’s den in a zoo. The mother aims her camera at a check as she explains that the check will now go to the bank. Just then a lion walks out of his den and mother aims her camera at the animal. What one sees on the screen is a lion walking down an aisle in the bank, approaching two tellers. “No, Mommy, No” excitedly cries the child and the mother laughingly explains that the action only sends checks.

Watching this ad, we also smile and then move on, as does the ad.

          But wait -- go back – watch it again, for this ad captures and illustrates an important concept that a parent needs to understand. It is a perfect example of how a child thinks, for when the mother aims the camera at the lion, one sees on the screen what is in the mind of the child – a lion in a bank. The child took the results of aiming the camera at the lion literally and concretely.

          Point one: a child’s thinking is tied to appropriate levels of intellectual development and young children think concretely. They do not understand the subtleties of language and assume a literal meaning of words. Describe a piece of clothing as “hot” and they will be afraid to touch it. Ask a young child to stop writing on the bathroom wall and he/she will stop – and start writing on the kitchen wall. But a parent, not grasping the power of the concrete thinking of their child (the lion in the bank), can fail to correct an idea that could have powerful consequences for effecting the future life of the child.

          For example, Richard sought therapy in order to understand why, although he longed to be married and be a father, seemed to be stuck in permanent bachelorhood. He found the answer in a memory of what had seemed an insignificant moment from years ago. He recalled that when he was nine years old, his father and mother had divorced. On the day his father moved out of the home, his father took him aside and said: “Son, I’m leaving to take a new job out of state. Mom and the girls are your responsibility – you’re the man of the house now.” As a child, Richard took in his father’s words concretely and could not have a marriage of his own since he had internalized his fathers words as he (Richard) was a “father and husband” already.

          Point two: Children are egocentric and cannot understand another’s perspective except their own. Egocentricity leads to believing that everybody must have similar emotions, thoughts and experiences. It also translates into, “It’s all about me!” This belief is not about vanity or self-aggrandizement but about how they believe, think and question how they exist in their worlds. It is expressed in questions like: “Do they like me?” / “Do I fit in?” / “Play ball well enough?” / “Am I tall enough?” / “Pretty enough?” / “Too serious?” / “Not serious enough?” and so on. Their egocentricity leads them to believe that they are the center of their worlds and, as such, have imaginary powers to affect that world.

          Ask a child why the sun comes up and she answers: “To wake me up.” The concrete thinking is caught in the timing of the sun being in the sky when the child wakes up. “Waking me” catches her egocentricity -- that she is responsible for what is happening in her world. Thus, how a child takes in the messages of childhood, messages that often are not obvious to a parent, can lead to distortions of understanding by the child and subsequent patterns of behavior that limit growth.

          Point Three: Children do not have the capacity to grasp abstract concepts. For example, if I am a child and my mother has a broken leg, I understand concretely that she is limited in what she can do for me and her lack of availability doesn’t have much to do with anything related to me. If however, my mother is suffering from depression –and depression is an abstraction, beyond the capacity of a child’s understanding – then my experience of my mother is that she is always sad or unavailable to do things with or for me -- and any other behaviors limiting her parenting role. My egocentricity kicks in, believing that the fault is mine because I am not good enough to make her happy. I react by thinking that if I were a better student (or prettier, or thinner, or…) then she would love me. Possibly one way to accomplish this is to become a perfect child, responsive to every actual or imagined request of my mother in order to make her happy, even at the expense of meeting my needs. Often, in cases like this the child is seen by the family as just “a good child” rather than a child struggling with his or her worth.

          Point Four: Children believe that their parents are all-knowing and all-powerful. This belief by the child is reinforced by parental behavior. A parent will often comment on what is, to the parent, an obvious behavior, but one not obvious to the child. For example, Tim is too busy to take time out to go to the bathroom. He stands wriggling and crossing his legs. His parent says, “Please go to the bathroom,” and Tim asks in wonder, “How did you know?” Since parents know everything, including his feelings and wants, there is a potential for misunderstanding. For Tim can assume that his parents’ lack of responsiveness is not because they don’t know, but because they don’t care. This trust in the perfection of the parent reinforces the child’s belief that if anything is wrong it must be with him and not the parent.

          Point Five: Children, when experiencing something new, will understand it by matching it to a pre-existing idea or experience. Young children think of right and wrong in terms of absolutes — of things being either always good or always bad. When judging an act, the young child does not consider the intent behind the act; only the outcome, good, or bad

          The story of Babs is yet another example of the importance of a parent understanding how their child thinks. Babs, as an adult, would start something but not finish it – start something but not finish it – and so on. She eventually traced this pattern to her mother’s constant comment of “You could have done better” in response to any grade of an exam Babs took or any paper she wrote in school. The mother, when confronted by Babs later in life explained that it was her (the mothers) way of saying to the child “You’re really smart.” The effect on Babs, the child however, was to start a pattern of never finishing anything in order to avoid feeling that, once again, she didn’t do it right.

          As an adult, it is difficult to always imagine how a child is reacting to the meaning of adult language and behavior. The challenge for a parent is to be sensitive to how their child might be internalizing a statement or action by either the parent or another adult, even when the child does not, like the child in the tv ad cry out, “No, Mommy, No.”

          This blog will continue to expand on The Long Reach of Childhood: How Early Experiences Shape You Forever and will include strategies that can play an important part in the process of breaking free. I hope you’ll continue to join me on this journey. And hope that the memories of your children are free of the distortions caused by a lack of parental understanding of how they think.

More Posts