Do Kids Know Themselves?

kids know themselvesThere’s an idea these days that kids know themselves best. It’s a modern thing, parents never used to think that. Parents used to act like they knew you better than you knew yourself – the absolute cheek of it! – so maybe this is the backlash. Maybe this generation of parents has made a pact never to do that to their own kids.

In the past the idea that kids know themselves was met with disapproval, like it was a fault in the child. ‘He knows his own mind’ used to be a critisism; something you’d hear a mother say grimly whilst holding her child in a head-lock, restraining him from jumping into a puddle. Today you’re more likely to hear it said with helpless resignation as justification for the fact that a child has just eaten a jam sandwich for tea, after he’s refused to eat anything else all week. Or it’s said proudly by your friend as their child holds out for the front seat of the car while you slink resentfully onto the back seat, pretending it’s all OK with you.

Here’s a list of things parents used to say:

‘You’re not really sad, you’re just angry you can’t get your own way’

‘Don’t be silly, you can’t possibly be hungry, you’ve just had your tea’

‘It’s nothing to get upset about’

‘It’s just a phase, you’ll grow out of it’

‘You can’t always get your own way’

‘Of course you want to go, you’ll enjoy it once you’re there’

‘I know best’

‘you’ll do as I say’

And here’s the language you hear now:

‘Sounds like you’re feeling really angry’

‘How does that make you feel?’

‘You must do what feels right for you’

‘You just need to be you’

‘It’s important to be who you are.’

‘Just be true to yourself’

‘Trust your own feelings’

The belief that kids know themselves best

We haven’t just changed our language, we’ve totally reversed our beliefs about the state of childhood. The first set of examples sees children as empty vessels or blank slates needing to be shaped and moulded according to the parent’s will. The second way sees children as having been born completely intact, with a fully-developed sense of self and identity. Or, to put it simply, we’ve moved from ‘parents know best’ to ‘kids know themselves best.’ Neither position works because both are incomplete. It’s true that a child knows how she is feeling right now better than you do, because she’s the one feeling it. An adult on the other hand, knows the broader picture and the likely outcome better, because adults have more experience.

The language of the past was unhelpful because no-one likes to be told that someone knows them better than they know themselves. The message received by children was ‘I am always wrong; I can’t trust my own feelings.’ But in switching to the opposite language children receive the reverse message: ‘I am always right; my feelings and perceptions are true.’

Children’s brains are literally built through relationship – in other words: no input, no development. If all the input children receive affirms their present-moment feeling and level of understanding, then we fix them into that internal sense of rightness and leave no room for growth, challenge or change.

As a child, when your Self is so much in the process of development, it can be a huge pressure and responsibility to always be expected to look to it for guidance and it’s too much to expect that kids know themselves to that extent.

‘Always trust your own feelings,’ for example, suddenly doesn’t seem like such good advice when we see our daughter being taken in by those lovely friendly people online who are actually trying to manipulate her into joining a cult. Trusting your perceptions when something feels instinctively wrong is great advice, but we also know, as adults, that young people can be taken in just because they are young and naive. We can’t withhold our adult knowledge that childish perceptions are not always right.

Throwing out the language of the past needn’t mean rejecting the adult knowledge and experience behind it. Whilst respecting a child’s present moment feelings we still have a duty to ensure that she experiences opportunities to question and re-think her perceptions. Nine times out of ten she really will enjoy it once she’s there.

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