Toddlers Know the Truth… Until They’re Talked out of It

toddlersI’m hardly the first person to recognize that basic truths are more easily grasped by the young and the uneducated. For example, here’s a passage from a letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote to Peter Carr in 1787:

State a moral case to a plowman and a professor. The former will decide it as well, and often better than the latter, because he has not been led astray by artificial rules.

What we generally call “education” and “socialization” are mostly efforts to separate the young from what they know innately. They do know things innately and by simple self-reference. Those things should never be pulled away from them. We are to add to them and clarify them, not take them away.

What Toddlers Know

Toddlers may be ignorant of many things, but they understand basic elements of life quite clearly. And we can see that understanding in the three things we hear every toddler say, over and over:

It’s mine.

You said.

It’s not fair.

I doubt there’s a semi-intelligent adult in the English-speaking world who hasn’t heard those words dozens of times. So, let’s look at the understanding they contain:

“It’s mine.”

This displays a basic understanding of property. Most things – certainly most things a toddler may be concerned with – are either one person’s or another’s. Food, for example: If one child eats a bowl of cereal, that cereal cannot be eaten by anyone else. It is either one person’s or another’s. The same goes for a bed: two people cannot sleep in the same spot at the same time.

Our physical nature requires private property; that’s a very simple and obvious truth, and one that young children grasp. The fact that so many adolescents and adults have been talked out of this truth (confused out of it) shows us the terrible power of authority combined with confusion.

“You said.”

Think about what is implied by this statement: The child expects integrity, even demands it. The same thought, set in adult terms, would be this:

If you say something, you must also act upon it, or else you negate your own words and thus judge yourself to be bad.

Not only is that opinion very clear and healthy, but it is the basis of all contracts and agreements. It is also the basis of morality, and was precisely that in the eyes of Jesus of Nazareth:

By your words you shall be justified, and by your words you shall be condemned.

Talking a child out of this understanding would be a horrific act. I know that people have done this ignorantly – which is certainly less bad for them than doing it purposely – but it doesn’t minimize the damage done to the child… and to the adult he or she will become.

“It’s not fair.”

This is an extension of the child’s understanding of integrity, but it also, at least in older toddlers, encompasses an understanding of equity.

The child judges whether something is fair or not, depending on how it matches the other person’s words. But they also judge based upon exchanges: If we’re doing something together, we should both contribute to the venture. If I put in several items, you should also.

“Fairness,” however, is not simply equality; it is also equity. We all know the concept of equity, though we seldom use the word very well.

If you let me duplicate a report on your copy machine, I should help you in some way, perhaps to help paint your porch. This exchange is not equal – we’re not going to count sheets of paper, ounces of paint and minutes of work – but we will expect the other to do something as a recompense. That’s equity, though not equality. And children come quickly to understand that as well.

Respecting Children

Children may be ignorant, but they are not entirely ignorant. They understand basic concepts early, even if they aren’t yet able to explain them. And those understandings should never be taken from them.

Children should be treated with respect. What they do know should be left alone to grow. What they lack should be added to them… gently.

Yes, children need correction too, but that should be undertaken for the improvement of the child, not the convenience of the adult. Children are adults in a preliminary form. They deserve our respect; we should never talk them out of truths.

Paul Rosenberg