Friday, 23 November 2012

When I spake as a child

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

So sayeth Paul in his first epistle to the Corinthians.

What does it mean to put away childish things, specifically childish understanding and childish thoughts?


First, we might want to identify childish understanding and childish thoughts.  There’s some fabulous work done by Rebecca Saxe on the development of children’s understanding of the motivations of others.

Basically, up until a certain age, children at not able to clearly distinguish between what they themselves know and what others might know.  A young child’s cognitive boundaries are so vaguely defined that when a child witnesses an event, it is not immediately obvious to that child that other people might not have knowledge of that event – even if they were not present when the event occurred.  In other words, the fundamental assumption of a young child is “what I know, you know”.

Think about that for a moment.

At that stage of development, a child thinks that other people are effectively omniscient.

Fortunately, you don’t have to wait until adulthood to put that particular childish thing aside.


I was deep in conversation with a six year old child a few years ago and the subject of death came up.  The exchange went a little like this:

neopolitan (neo) – What do you think happens when you die?

Little Batman Fan (LBF) – Batman comes and takes you to hospital.

neo – Ah.  You do know that Batman’s not real, don’t you?

LBF – Of course I know Batman’s not real!

neo – Good.

LBF – Bruce Wayne’s real.

neo – I see what you mean.  What happens when Batman takes you to hospital?

LBF – They make you better.

At this stage of his development, this particular child thought that death was fixable.  (I should point out that this child was never under any illusion that death could be avoided, having been told from the very first time the issue was raised that everybody dies.)

Fortunately, the child did not need to wait until adulthood to put that childish thing aside.


I never claimed that my father could beat up other fathers.  He probably could, of course, but the topic never came up.  I don’t quite recall the moment when I realised that, despite being at least partly responsible for my creation (pending DNA tests), my father was somewhat short of perfect.  It may have been when we were all cowering behind a wall because he was doing a little experiment involving a largely empty petrol can and a bonfire.

The point is, there was a point in time when my father was pretty amazing – he provided clothing and food for his family, he built a house in front of our very eyes, he caught lizards and served them up for lunch (although he had failed to kill, skin and cook said lizards, which invariably escaped before being served), he could control this enormous machine to transport us around and if it broke down for any reason he could fix it, he set up and filled a swimming pool one Xmas Eve without any of us noticing until the next day, occasionally he could even exert some small measure of influence on my mother … he could do anything if he put his mind to it (within reason, of course). 

Then, later on, it came to my attention that he was not really omnipotent.  So I put aside my childish, unquestioning adoration of someone who was entirely human.

(Unlike some other adult children, I accept that this adoration was my doing, not something imposed on me.  The fact that my unrealistic expectations were not maintained by either parent is hardly something that I can hold them accountable for.)


Children are exceedingly, and often excruciatingly, skilled at asking questions.  They ask a lot of questions.

What they aren’t quite as good at is answering questions or working out whether a question has an answer or not. 

One day, I asked the LBF (aged four) whether he’d ever seen a tree as large as the Giant Sequoia we were standing under.  His immediate answer, without any pause, was “Yes.”  He also accepted responsibility for invading Poland.  Many children seem to go through a stage of answering every question with the same answer.  For the LBF it was “yes”.  For another it was “don’t know”.  Perhaps for others it is “no”.  Again, answering all questions with the single answer is a thing that children usually put aside quite quickly.

The same applies for poorly thought-out questions.  What, I hear you ask, is a poorly thought-out question?  A poorly thought-out question is one which is inadvertently directing the answer or the type of answer, or one to which there simply is no answer, or one that fails to provide enough background information to formulate an answer.

Note that a poorly thought-out question is not necessarily a stupid question.  Children can be asking a question that seems totally reasonable from within their restricted world view.  For example:

Say it’s been raining and a child notices that the trees are wet and asks:

·         Who put all the water on the trees?

o   This is not necessarily a silly question.  The child may have previously observed a parent hosing down the car and observed that after the hosing down process, the car was wet.  While engaging in idle chit-chat with its parent, the child may have asked “Why are you putting water on the car?”  The parent may have reinterpreted the question as meaning “Why are you hosing down the car?” and answered with “Because we are going to visit some friends.”  Note that the parent has now answered a mechanism question (what function does hosing down the car with water serve) with a motivation answer (for what reason are you putting perfectly good drinking water on the car).

§  (A more reasonable exchange could go like this “Why are you putting water on the car?” “Because I’m cleaning the car” “Why?”  “Because I want the car to be clean.” “Why?” “Because I want our friends to be impressed with how clean our car is when we visit them.” “Why?” “Because adults are sad and pathetic.”)

o   If the parent answers with “the clouds” this leads to two related problems.  First, the clouds didn’t put water on the trees, so the answer is wrong.  Second, the answer follows the child’s lead by implying agency and this allows the child, quite reasonably, to ask “Why?”  This is a smart question being asked by an ignorant person of a thoughtless person.

o   A smarter, loving parent would treat this as a learning experience and ask “What do you mean?” to which the child will either rephrase the question (perhaps with “Why are the trees wet?” to which the parent can answer “Because it’s been raining.”) or re-ask the same question.  At this point the parent can make clear to the child that there was something wrong with the question – “Nobody put water on the trees, they’re wet because it’s been raining.”

The child could also ask:

·         Why do the trees want to be wet?

o   Again, this is not necessarily a silly question.  On warm days, humans quite often want to get wet, either going swimming or spraying water on themselves.

o   Parents can easily lead their children astray here by responding to the question as if it were valid:

§  “They want to get cool.”

§  “They drink water through their leaves.”

§  “They didn’t have any choice.  It was the clouds that did it.”


·         Which is better, a wet tree or a dry cactus?

o   This is starting to get a bit silly, but from the viewpoint of a child, it’s sometimes difficult to know what things can and cannot be validly compared.

These three questions represent the types of “problem” questions that children might ask:

·         questions that assume that there is an unknown agent behind natural phenomena

·         questions that assume agency in things that don’t have agency, and

·         questions based on comparison of things which cannot be validly compared

Now I don’t want to imply that asking questions is bad – far from it.  What I am saying is that children put aside asking poorly thought-out questions.  Well thought-out questions should continue to be asked.  The childish thing that should be put aside here is the acceptance of simple answers to complex questions.


When I was a child, I believed that there was an omniscient being (or two).

When I was a child, I believed that there was an omnipotent being (or two).
When I was a child, I believed that death was fixable.

When I was a child, I gave the same simple answer to a lot of complex questions.

When I was a child, I believed that there were unknown agents or an unknown agent behind natural phenomena.

When I was a child, I believed that inanimate things had agency.

When I was a child, I compared things that could not validly be compared.

When I was a child, I accepted simple answers to complex questions.

Now that I am grown, I have put aside these childish things.

Shouldn’t we all?

No comments:

Post a Comment

Feel free to comment, but play nicely!

Sadly, the unremitting attention of a spambot means you may have to verify your humanity.