Why Don’t They Listen to Me?

by Rick on April 23, 2021

Walking down the sidewalk with three grandsons, the 9-year-old always walks balancing on the curb. His 6-year-old brother follows, and the 11-year-old walks ahead with the adults.

What do their parents say? Right, they pull from their toolbox of:

“Please get back on the sidewalk.”
“Get back on the sidewalk. That’s too dangerous.”
“Don’t do that! It makes me nervous.”
“Get off the curb, please. You are setting a bad example for your little brother.”
Or, the angry rhetorical: “Why do you keep doing that?”

Well, why do they keep doing that?”

Because they are doing what young people’s brains are designed to do: play. And they were designed that way for a good reason. As Alison Gopnik and her colleagues at Berkeley have learned, “Babies are making complicated calculations with conditional probabilities to figure out how the world really works.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cplaWsiu7Yg)
“Babies can take perspective, understand cause and effect, make and test hypotheses, and in many ways mirror the thinking of the most brilliant scientist.”
In other words, their brains are designed to do research on the world to find out how the world really works, not just how those in the previous generation say it works.

Homo sapiens has come a long way in the last 5,500 years, from inventing the wheel to designing robots that fly their way around Mars, and a playful brain is why we have been able to do so. We also, have a long way to go: Like making sure that 9 billion humans can thrive without killing each other, themselves and the planet we live on.

Humans have gotten as far as we have because “play” is built into our brains, especially the brains of children. Play is where we explore possibilities and probabilities and come up with new behaviors, new ideas and new products. Playing builds new pathways in the brain and opens up possibilities that the adult world has never thought of.

One rainy day several years ago, Judy Stone, a great middle school teacher, and I were supervising 48 seventh and eighth graders in the multi-purpose room for a half-hour recess. Judy called us all together and said:
“Three rules: No running. No balls, and No jumping off the stage.”
We spent the next 30 minutes adjudicating whether or not that fast walking was running, whether that wad of tape was a ball, and whether that giant step off the stage was a jump. They were doing what young people are supposed to do: testing the boundaries.

Adults need to 1) know what we know, and 2) know that we don’t know. When we play we are growing our brains by making guesses, forming hypotheses, and testing them over and over again. We are renewing ourselves.

Yes, we want our children to wait for the green light before they cross at an intersection, but we also want them to be open minded, open to learning new things, imaginative, creative, innovative. Eliminating play from school, especially preschool, is ignorant and disastrous.

So parents: Say what you know. They will listen to you. But when they don’t behave the way you expect, it is not because they didn’t “listen.” It is because they are engaging in the only behavior that might get us out of all the trouble we are still in. They are growing their brains.






{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Jenny Cowgill April 24, 2021 at 1:55 pm

I love this so much. One of the tragedies of adulthood for far too many is that they forget how to play.

Rick April 24, 2021 at 2:22 pm

yes. how do you play?

Pastor James May 14, 2021 at 8:35 am

I have always encountered children playing even in the church. This sometimes irritates me, but I have come to realize that play is more important to them than the many teachings we give. Thanks for the insights

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