Kids aren't thinking
Do you ever shake your head at your kid's less-than-perfect behaviour? Joseph Shrand, a child psychiatrist and instructor at Harvard Medical School, explains that the two distinct parts of a still-developing human brain are mismatched: “Children’s limbic brain, responsible for impulses, emotions and pleasure, is more mature than their prefrontal cortex, responsible for thinking, making decisions and anticipating consequences.” In other words, poor behaviour isn't necessarily a result of poor thinking. Kids aren’t thinking (at least not the way adults can).
Here are 10 behaviours that baffle us — and the science behind them.
A version of this article appeared in our September 2012 issue with the headline "10 things to forgive your kids for (and why)," pp. 66-70.
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You place a cup of milk beside your four-year-old, tell her repeatedly to watch out for it, and she spills it.
Kids aren’t supposed to be coordinated; their brains aren’t ready because the neurons that fine-tune gross and fine motor skills haven’t fully developed. “Humans are hardwired to develop certain abilities at certain times,” says child and adolescent psychiatrist Tia Horner. “We sit at six months, crawl at nine months, walk at twelve months, and so on. Clumsiness in children is normal. It subsides, but slowly.” Spills are bound to happen, with improvement starting to show in the early elementary stage.
Your eight-year-old is sitting with her younger brother examining her two last jelly beans. She pops both into her mouth instead of sharing.
“Not all kids have the same wiring, meaning some kids are just naturally more selfish than others,” says child and adolescent psychiatrist Sujatha Ramakrishna. But take heart; this self-centred phase isn’t permanent. “As they approach the preteen years, kids naturally learn to think about others,” says Ramakrishna. “Parents can help encourage this process, but they should also understand that it takes time, and can’t be forced.”
You change the usual Tuesday night hamburger dinner to chicken, and a tantrum ensues.
Toddlers and preschoolers are building constant neural pathways; repetition makes those pathways stronger. A few years later, that desire for pattern creation and recognition morphs into the desire to see if a given behaviour can change an outcome. When it does, your child feels like he has control over his environment. This is why “young kids believe rules are set in stone... and parental improvisation is forbidden,” says family physician Deborah Gilboa. “For the same reason they love...hearing the same story or watching the same video over and over again — change can cause anxiety.” Around age nine or 10, this usually starts to shift.
You’re talking to a friend when your five-year-old tugs at your sleeve. You tell her to wait, and she does it again 10 seconds later.
“Patience requires significant time to develop,” says school psychologist Leigh Ann Wayland. And the culprit, again, is executive brain functioning. “There are both genetic and developmental contributions,” advises Mark McKee, a child psychologist and author of Raising a Successful Child (The Manual). “Frustration, tolerance, impulse control, anticipation of consequences, and judgment — all contributors to patience — vary in development considerably from child to child.” Of course, that doesn’t mean you should just wait for it to happen. Says McKee, “providing the child with opportunities to practise being patient, and rewarding successful efforts at being so, can accelerate the process.”
Your well-spoken, model-student nine-year-old is suddenly obsessed with fart jokes and swear words.
Though maturity is a complex, difficult-to-measure construct, one thing is certain: It doesn’t happen quickly. “Immaturity is part of the definition of a child,” advises developmental psychologist Marilyn Livosky. “While their brains continue to develop, most children display what we think of as immaturity right into adolescence. But over time, they develop the ability to do things like think logically, delay gratification and understand others — all of which contribute to the behaviours that we count as maturity.”
Your usually calm and composed 10-year-old totally loses it when you inform him that your plan to go to the movies together has changed.
“The best way to help children be predictable is to be predictable ourselves,” says Horner. Still, adds Ramakrishna, it’s perfectly normal for your kids to throw you curve balls once in a while. “Healthy children test limits and push boundaries. If they didn’t, they would never get anywhere developmentally.”
7. Lack of empathy
Your four-year-old falls on the driveway and bursts into tears. Your seven-year-old, standing beside her, keeps dribbling the basketball.
“What looks to parents like thoughtlessness is often just kids trying to experiment with how their words or actions affect the world around them,” says Gilboa. She explains that kids are, by nature, incredibly self-involved; it’s not that your son doesn’t care about his little sister, he likely just doesn’t notice. The silver lining? Change is just around the corner. “While young children do have the capacity to feel compassion,” adds Horner, “the ability for deeper, more abstract altruism and moral reasoning starts to really develop through the teen years.”
Your youngest son shows off a picture he drew. Your oldest son looks at it and pronounces it “dumb.”
Meanness is often a symptom of some other, separate feeling of anxiety or disappointment, says psychotherapist Natalie Robinson Garfield, author of The Sense Connection. The best tack for parents is to try to get to the bottom of the issue while monitoring their own tone and attitude, since, naturally, kids will mirror what they see from mom and dad. “Children take their cues from what they see and hear at home,” she counsels.
9. Inability to focus
You sign your six-year-old up for soccer, but he spends his time on the field pretending to be an airplane.
It might seem like children often tune out and miss a lot, says Ramakrishna, but it’s just that they’re seeing everything from a different perspective than an adult would. As they discover the fascinating world around them, a variety of things catch their interest, often fleetingly. “Usually around age seven or eight they settle down and begin to develop a better ability to focus,” she says.
Your 12-year-old isn’t allowed to go out with friends until she’s finished her homework. “Don’t tell me what to do,” she snaps.
“What we think of as disrespect is mostly a result of children still learning how to regulate feelings like anger or frustration,” advises Fran Walfish, a psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent. The best way to address this, she says, is to encourage them to reframe words in a more acceptable way. Don’t demand an apology — it’s just an easy way to get you off their back. Instead, say, “I hear how frustrated you are. Please explain your feelings in a respectful way.”
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