Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Reasoning to kids: Tenure's questions

In response to an earlier post, Tenure asked:
You often say how you have these 'talks' with your son, but then you also say that you can't reason with children, that they'll just listen to anything you say.
To clarify, a kid starts reasoning somewhere around 4 or 5 (if memory serves me right), and at 9 -- my son's age -- the basic process of reasoning is well established. However, I think there's a vital component that's missing, and will come only (I'm guessing) somewhere in the teens.

The most important thing that is missing for a younger child is: adequate context, adequate known truths and untruths, adequate knowledge. Without such knowledge, the child does not question many premises he is given. An older child may be puzzled by some premise, because it does not integrate with his existing knowledge; but, a younger doesn't have the background to spot the contradictions (he is not aware of the contradictory "counter premise").

A rational adult, learning some new information, integrates it with all sorts of existing information that he already knows. In contrast, the young child accepts it, but the acceptance is a bit shaky, because there is far less else to which it is integrated, at that stage of his life. The new knowledge is not "well rooted".

To the extent that reasoning is the entire process of integrating knowledge, the 4th grader is at a disadvantage, even though he does not lack too much in the specific area of deductive ability.

Tenure also asks:
Two questions:

1) Have you ever had to be authoritarian with your son, because he just didn't understand something, "Don't do that - BECAUSE I SAY SO!"?

First, "ever" is too wide. What I mean is: parents are sometimes tired, distracted, etc. etc. -- so, parents can sometimes be unreasonable, or simply go "off plan" in one way or another. So, let's narrow it to cases where I'm acting thoughtfully, and ask whether -- being thoughtful -- it is still sometimes best to go with "... because I say so."

The answer to that is: yes and no. Yes, a parent often has to insist on some behavior; but, not the way it is framed in the question. There are many times we demand that our son do something that he does not want to do. However, when we're thoughtful about it, we always give him a reason. He may not fully understand the reason, or he may understand the reason but not "get" the "value" to himself. Nevertheless, when we may force him to act, he still has some type of intellectual understanding of our reason for insisting.

For instance, a simple example might be: "Yes, you have to wear a jacket, because it's cold".

However, if it's a conversation that one has had many times before, it might be truncated to: "Yes, you have to wear a jacket", because the kid already knows why.

On the other hand, if there's time, and he and I are in the right mood, it might become an extended conversation: "Do you know at what temp we keep the a/c during summer?" "No." "Usually, it's somewhere between 68 and 72 degrees F; lower than 68 can get a bit chilly. Well, the temperature outside is 47 right now, and it's only going to be 52 at noon recess; that's more than 10 degrees cooler than our cool a/c". (That last is a conversation from this morning.)
2) At what age does a kid start to reason, and if he isn't really reasoning, is providing a rational environment the best you can do? What does that entail?
I think the quick-ref guide goes roughly like this:
  • Walk at one
  • Talk at two
  • Reason at ... sometime later... ??? four ??? I forget
The exact time is not so important, here, because that's the time they start, not when they're competent. Anyway, I think the first part of the question is mostly answered above.

As for providing a rational environment, it mostly entails being rational. If there has to be a single answer to the question: "how can I make my child become like Mr. X?", it is this: you act like Mr. X yourself. There's no guarantee, of course, but it's the route with the best chance of success. Only after having a kid, and meeting his little pals, and meeting their parents, did I realize how strongly young, pre-teen kids emulate their parents.

Not having the typical irrational imperatives of religion and social-conformity, makes it that much easier to be a good example of rationality.

Personally, if I had to vote for a second most important thing, it would be: try to have the kid in as rational a school environment as possible.


Anonymous Tenure said...

Thank you. You answered my questions in a very thoughtful manner. I was curious, basically, because I know I was often treated that way. I consider my parents very good parents (although I blame my father for my love of trains; and both parents for my insane sense of humour), but I often wonder, when I see parents shouting at their kids and arguing with them in public: "Is this a normal situation? Will I have to be so forceful with my own children one day?"
I love reading this blog because I have honestly never heard of a child develop in such a way (outside of fictional stories), where he communicates such wit and understanding of the world around him. Not understanding of the facts of reality just yet, but how to identify them.

Also, I thoroughly agree with what you said about it not being till teenagerhood, when children have had enough experiences totalled together, that they can start integrating ideas together to say, "Well, wait a minute - what kind of principle am I running on here? Is that really the right or wrong thing for me? Why have they always said that, when I've got this thing right here which contradicts that?"

I think that fits perfectly with what Kendall has said to me before, specifically about relationships, in that one, in short, has the opportunity to learn from their mistakes when they choose an ill-fitting partner. They integrate that knowledge back into themselves and use that to abstract out what they really look for and value in a partner.

It's all about the knowledge.

2:38 AM  
Blogger objectivistDad said...

Just to make sure that you're not making any false assumptions: we some shouting and arguing too, but not as "a matter of policy".

Kids can often drive one absolutely crazy; luckily for them, when one parent is mad, the other can be a refuge!

2:58 PM  

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