Behavior Problems Rooted in Kids’ Scientific Brains

What underlies “bad behavior?” Watch the video by Alison Gopnik (below) and see what you think.

From time to time I meet three other adults at a preschool here in Decatur to go for a walk with some four-year-olds. In the classroom the teacher invites eight children to pick a partner.

“This is Mr. Rick,” says the teacher. “Who wants to walk with Mr. Rick?”

Samuel immediately comes over to this perfect stranger and takes my hand. Renee scrutinizes  my face, gives me a beguiling look, and pushes past two others to take my hand.

We walk out of the classroom, down the hall, out the door, and through the parking lot.  After stopping at a street and looking both ways, we cross to the sidewalk on the other side.

We examine different kinds of nuts on the ground and never miss honoring each puddle with our feet in some creative way. But most of the fun comes from the constant chatter. I am proud that I am able to keep up two conversations at once–sort of.

Two thirds of the way through the walk Renee decides it is time to take our relationship to the next level. She drops my hand. The adult behind me says: “Hold hands, Renee,” and Renee retakes my hand.

But her experimenting has only just begun. At a curb she finds an excuse to drop it, again. Renee spends the last ten minutes of the walk doing research on our relationship by trying out a repertoire of behaviors. It seems she has a list of questions she needs to get more data on:

Does Mr. Rick uphold the “hold hands” rule?

If he does, how does his way differ from the other adults who have held my hand on this walk before?

How does Mr. Rick assert his authority? About what? Are other rules more or less important than hand-holding?

I am pretty confident these are some of her questions, and I am sure she has some other hypotheses she is also testing, but what can you tell in a 30 minute walk?

I have been reading many wise statements online about behavior problems and their causes: “She needs attention,”  ”product of laissez-fair parenting,” “Mother is a control freak,” “the evils of over-protection,” and many more you could guess. However, there is a very common cause that I rarely hear much about. Much childish behavior that adults feel is bad is the result of a routine scientific investigation of the environment. Testing hypotheses like: “Whining gets me what I want.” Always? No matter who is in charge? Who has more authority, Mom, Dad, Grandma, baby sitter?…or Mr. Rick?… on and on.

Does this adult mean what he says? Does he handle the same situation in the same way as another? Does “No eating between meals” mean the same thing to different adults. When a teacher says “No running,” does he mean “No fast walking?”

Children absolutely need to know the answers to these and thousands of questions like them. In my experience, that is the primary cause of what we adults call mis-behavior.

All four-year-olds have been doing research on their environment for 35,000 hours, and the largest area of interest for most children is social relationships, how people behave, and how you can get them to behave.

By the time she walks in the door of a kindergarten next year Renee will have had over 43,000 hours of practice harmonizing her needs, values and interests with those of others. (Including sleep in these numbers is important, because a great deal of information processing occurs while we sleep. Sleepy-time is data processing time.)

It should be no surprise to us that children are so socially competent. We humans acquired our large brains, because one branch of the primate line started to get serious about collaborating. There is good research to supporting the hypothesis that our large brains are a result of social-problem solving. Research by Alison Gopnik, Patricia Kuhl and others shows that children in the first five years of life seem to be wired to utilize the scientific method.

Schools that teach children as if they are already expert at many aspects of learning, get better results. Parents would be happier with their children if they understood their children for the scientists they are.

We are waiting for the weather to warm up, so we can go walking again.

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8 Responses to Behavior Problems Rooted in Kids’ Scientific Brains

  1. I think this is a fantastic, lovely, funny and clear way of explaining what is going on when our children behave in all the ways they do. It is very simple, and yet we confuse the issue so much with our strategies and systems for ‘controlling’ behaviour. Children are actually doing all the work themselves. A shift from the mindset ‘children need boundaries imposed on them’ to ‘I need to know my boundaries and express them clearly to children’ makes a big difference in the relationship. Thank you for writing this.

  2. Rick says:

    Children are actually doing all the work themselves. A shift from the mindset ‘children need boundaries imposed on them’ to ‘I need to know my boundaries and express them clearly to children’ makes a big difference in the relationship.
    Bears repeating over and over these days. Couldn’t (didn’t) say it better myself.

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  4. Tina says:

    Wonderful post. I love how easy you make it seem to understand children. Every parent should read this. Thank you 🙂

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  6. Tracy says:

    Another incredibly insightful article.

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