The marks we see as signs of childhood immaturity are actually highly sophisticated tools for learning and growth. Play is a highly complex tool for developing a worldview, imaginary friends offer a sophisticated alternative reality that allows children to test the laws of behavior, and children’s uninhibited, “unfocused” attention is precisely what allows them to learn so quickly and rapidly. We don’t understand that the ways children interact with the world have developmental purposes of their own, necessary and complete as they are.
Friendship between young children is more than knowing or feeling affection for someone; friendship is a public experience, seen and affirmed from the outside as much as any internal, cognitive belief. It is relating to someone in the moment through play.
Children are not primitive adults, and they are not incomplete human beings; they are whole human beings who deserve to be understood and respected.
The adult bias about children’s social structure has two layers. First, adults believe that if any social structure does exist, it consists of negative interactions between children: children hit one another, take toys, push, bite, and exclude each other from play. Second, when children do have successful peer interactions, it is because of the hard work of dedicated parents and child care professionals— they don’t learn to be social on their own.
In working with young children, we have a tendency to focus on who children will grow up to be rather than focusing on and respecting their present needs.
In trying to understand how childhood is a distinct culture, we adults who live and work among children are like ethnographers, seeking to understand them in their own cultural context.
When the only model we have for understanding childhood is a continuum of development, childhood is always measured against adulthood.
We must learn to stop evaluating children by how well they do adult tasks. If we never change our rubric, they will always appear deficient. Shifting our understanding to appreciate children as members of a separate culture permits us to do just that.
The tricky part about culture is that it most often exists below surface-level interactions.
Norwegian scholar Gunvor Løkken notes in her work on toddler peer culture that examining children’s social systems from the inside “should challenge any view that toddler relations are rare, short-lived and often aggressive, and as such continuously in need of adult or older children’s support” (2000, 173).
In addition to their physical flexibility and capacity for repetitive, group-oriented games, children possess a multitude of abilities that perfectly situate them for their present experiences. Unfortunately, when we focus on the degrees to which they have progressed toward adulthood, we miss the gifts they bring in the present.
I believe the field of early childhood education must reframe our understanding of human beings so that middle-aged adulthood no longer resides at the pinnacle of a mythical developmental pyramid.