Defining childhood, as a concept can be a challenging task: there is a world of different characteristics, theoretical descriptions, and individual differences that make understanding children a never-ending effort. Each time you believe you’ve captured the essence of what they are about, a new piece of information surfaces that can enhance your understanding. I teach preschoolers and I teach adults about preschoolers, and yet I continue to discover new things about children as individuals and in their group settings. Thankfully, I have found a few common threads that lie among good theories and best practices:
- Children are good explorers.
- Children are great learners.
- Children need trust.
Let’s focus on “trust” for now; and when I say, “trust” I mean “trust” in the reciprocal, even the dynamic sense. Humans are a social species, and it’s trust that guides children’s development from their earliest stages of life. A great deal of work has shown that children need to trust that their caregivers will keep them safe, feed them, and nurture them when they are ill or sad (Erickson, 1966). It is trust with the relationship that creates the foundation of a healthy attachment; it allows children to feel safe and it empowers them to explore and learn (Bowlby, 1980; Ainsworth, 1964).
But just as importantly, adults must trust children. Scholars have chosen various terms to illustrate their own positive views of children. For example, in her recent book, The Importance of Being Little, Erika Christakis asserts that children are, above all, powerful (Christakis, 2016). In The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love & the Meaning of Life. Scholar and writer Alison Gopnik culls psychological research to outline how children are naturally thoughtful (Gopnik, 2009). Rigorous investigations by David Whitebread and his colleagues have shown that, in their free play, children are self-directed, goal-oriented, and reflective (Whitebread et al., 2009; Whitebread et. al., 2010). I teach at the laboratory school for the Department of Psychology at Stanford University, and teachers approach every interaction with a child, converse with every parent, plan every bit of the curriculum holding on to the essential principle that children are competent (Robinette & Hartman, 2011). All of these descriptors are perhaps surprising in a culture where we often see children as needing help, needing knowledge, or needing direction. For me, all of these come together to show that children are trustworthy individuals. Children are trustworthy because, when given the opportunity, they display remarkable competencies that we may perceive as mature “beyond their years,” but, really, are behaviors common to children everywhere.
This trust in children doesn’t come automatically for us. You might think, “How can I, a responsible grownup, trust these beings that can’t yet walk, find the right words, or even tie their own shoes?” But I have found in my own trajectory as an educator and in my work with parents and colleagues that it can be developed—that it does develop—as long as our eyes are open to the amazing abilities children possess. In truth, there are many things that children actually do better than adults. From the onset of life, they are phenomenal learners. Children’s brains observe the world around them, collect “data” through all of their senses, and form theories about how things work (Gopnik, Meltzoff, and Kuhl, 1999). Nature has also provided humans with an extended juvenile period—around 12 years—to make them even better learners. With this natural drive to construct knowledge, children are intentional in their actions, always directly or indirectly working toward the goal of understanding or feeling comfortable in the world around them.
Beyond this cognitive realm, children make ethical decisions, show empathy, and display concretely helpful behavior (Gopnik, 2009). An image sticks with me from the classroom years ago: one child was quite sad after saying goodbye to her parent, tears flowing as I tried to comfort her; and then a friend came, toy phone in hand. “It’s okay,” she said tenderly. “Let’s text your mom.” Thumbs pressing randomly against the toy, the helper wrote a pretend message, offering a connection that—even though only imagined—soothed her friend and welcomed her to play at the same time. In general, children display this kind of morality until taught otherwise through modeling or difficult conditions in life (Bandura, 1999).
Children’s trustworthiness is also evident in the ways they demonstrate cognitive competence and remarkable problem-solving abilities. Once, I watched a two-year-old work to empty every last wood chip out of a bucket. At first glance, the action is simple; but still this young person carefully watched as he tipped the bucket sideways and some of the chips cascaded out. He wasn’t satisfied, so he reached in and pulled them out with his bare hands. Still, a few stragglers clung to the corners of the pale, and the boy tried a new strategy. He tipped the bucket completely upside-down, tapped the bottom a few times, and tipped it gingerly up to see if the chips had fallen. Indeed, they had, and boy quickly moved on to other play.
I don’t mean to make a mountain of a molehill, because the actual pile of wood chips was the least impressive part of the ordeal. Utterly remarkable, though, is the process by which this boy underwent a seemingly mundane task that in reality requires a great deal of thought and energy to complete.
- He set a goal for himself > removing the wood chips
- Devised a solution > tipping the bucket
- Evaluated the results > looking back in the bucket
- Created multiple new strategies > pulling the chips, > flipping, > tapping the bucket, and, finally, > determined that he had finished.
On a toddler-sized scale, this mirrors the scientific process that we appreciate in great minds!
Adults can foster their own trust in children by taking the time to listen, observe, and understand their words and their actions. Sometimes, even challenging behaviors can be rooted in valid goals or innovative solutions. I remember a young boy in my class, who was playing with a tall tower of MagnaTiles® (flat, plastic shapes with magnets inserted into the edges to help them attach together). He made a tall stack of squares, then grabbed on with both hands. He reached for a plastic animal figure and started banging on the side of the tower. “What is he doing?” I wondered. And I watched. With the animal, he broke the tower apart, and then rebuilt it. He repeated the process, grabbing with both hands, strain on his face as he apparently tried to pull the blocks apart to no avail. So he picked up the animal again and banged on the side, effectively prying the blocks back apart; fighting against the magnetic force intended to make building easier. The toy animal, and the destructive act of using it against the tiles, was simply the most effective way he could find of taking his work apart so he could try again. He was practicing. And when the magnets got in his way, he invented a tool to solve his problem.
I present all of these stories to show that children are kind, capable, and thoughtful individuals. This vision of children and childhood supports a strong relationship that facilitates learning in all areas of development, a relationship that starts with adults making a simple assumption: children are competent. As we grow to understand children’s play as a way to bolster their learning and demonstrate their strengths, we begin to see their power, intelligence, kindness, intentionality, skillfulness, motivation, self-control, independence, innovation, and empathy evolve. We see their trustworthiness.