At age 7, I knew it was very wrong to drink and drive. You could go to the slammer. So, sitting in the back seat and watching my Dad knock one back put my mind racing. “What is he doing!” I thought. “That is so against the law!” I immediately called him out.
“Dad, you’re not supposed to drink and drive,” I said.
My dad stopped drinking and looked at me through the rear view mirror. I tried to give a disappointed look at him, but he had already turned toward my mom, who was sitting next to him in the passenger seat. She was drinking too. She wasn’t driving though, so it was okay.
I learned in school about the dangers about drinking and driving – how it leads to a lot of bad accidents and that people get in trouble and go to jail. I could not comprehend that I understood this concept, yet I was trying to hold my parents accountable to – practically – the law.
“Gib…,” my dad said. (Gib is my family nickname). My dad continues, “…I can drink a Pepsi.” My mom turned toward me, holding her diet Pepsi and nodded her head yes in confirmation.
I put my hands in the air. Well, I had one hand up because my other hand was holding a can of soda. “But I learned in school you’re not suppose to drink and drive.”
“You can’t drink beer,” my dad said. “You can’t drink beer while you’re driving. You can get in a lot of trouble and go to jail.”
“Ohhhh!” I said. So they did know. Although I didn’t really understand the difference, because my mind didn’t really understand the effects of alcohol. There was never a beer or hard liquor in the house during my entire childhood. There was a lot of Pepsi.
Still, I let it go and continued looking out the car window. Although I’m the one that learned something new, I still felt I did my civic duty.
Moral of the Story: Children learn and understand the world better and better as their ability to learn and understand gets better and better.
This idea comes directly from Jean Piaget, a mighty force in the child development field. He theorizes that as children’s perceptions and thought processes evolve and mature, so does their understanding of the world.
Here’s an example of what that would look like using another story about a flying squirrel (not a story from my childhood though).
A child who encounters a flying squirrel at a zoo – for the first time – calls it a “bird”.
Now, the child will call it a bird because the only thing he’s ever seen that flies in the air are birds. However, the child knows that what he saw is different, so his understanding of it needs to change – that there are other creatures that can fly and they are not all called birds.
So, the next time the child sees the flying squirrel, it may go like this:
A month later, the child goes to the zoo and encounters the same flying squirrel again, this time calling it “a bird with a tail.”
This is interesting because nothing has changed with the squirrel. It always had a tail. But the child, as he’s developing his understanding, gets that this is not a bird. And, although he hasn’t developed a full understanding or has the language capable to distinguish the squirrel from other flying animals, he will use what he’s got working with his current understanding – thus adding the tail part. He will continue to make incremental progress, upgrading his understanding.
Now, considering my own civic duty story, my understanding was that there was no drinking of any kind while someone drives a car. Yet, this might be understandable, because the statement is “Don’t drink and drive” and not “Don’t drink beer and drive.” Adults, on the other hand, with their more experiences and developed understanding, know the meaning of this statement clearly.
Young children make similar statements and assumptions in the classroom all the time. Have you run into these?
While in line, a boy bumps into the back of a girl. The girl shouts out, “He hit me!”
When you tell a child, “We’re going to share the crayons.” But the child interprets as “organized stealing.”
You explain to the class that everyone will take turns riding the tricycle, but of the two that are actually riding, the other 14 stand pouting with the arms folded.
If you’re a preschool teacher, you probably run into each one of these situations every single day. Furthermore, you probably also understand that, in each of these situations, the children are trying to understand a concept they don’t quite get – bumping is different from hitting, sharing is not taking, and that turn-taking ensures that everyone will eventually get an experience…
…or that drinking soda while driving won’t land you in jail.
The idea is, as children get older their brain will upgrade to the next version. And, as it updates and becomes more efficient, they are able to handle more information with better perception and interpretation of the experiences.