Tuesday, May 23, 2017

"He Acts Like A Toddler"

"Four-year-olds, contrary to popular belief, are not egocentric or self-centered. They understand and care about how other people feel and think, and recognize that other people can feel and think differently from them . . . In fact, children . . . demonstrate both empathy and altruism: They will rush to comfort someone who is hurt, and they will spontaneously go out of their way to help someone."  ~Alison Gopnik

It's common enough for an adult to insult another adult by insisting that "he acts like a toddler." It's a put-down that generally means that the critic finds his target to be irrational, emotional, selfish, prone to fabrication, detached from objective reality, and inclined to be insensitive toward the needs of others.

As a teacher of young children, someone who spends most of his waking life in the company of them, and who, generally speaking, strives to be more like them, I would take it as a compliment were someone to hurl that particular insult in my direction. Indeed, anyone who would use "You're acting like a child" as an insult displays a grotesque ignorance and prejudice about a large percentage of the human population. Actual scientific research shows that children are no more prone to these negative behaviors than are adults and, in fact, in most cases are less likely to engage in them. Generally speaking, I've known preschoolers, on balance, to be extraordinarily thoughtful and honest. Yes, they may tend toward public displays of their emotions, but most therapist would tell you that this is preferable to the adult sanctioned method of stuffing their feelings then later taking it out on innocent loved ones. With rare exceptions even the youngest children I teach display a compassion and concern for their fellow humans that far surpasses that of more hard-headed adults who forever place road-blocks in the way of helping strangers in need.

I've written about the work of Alison Gopnik before. She is a well-regarded professor psychology, researcher and author. In an opinion piece that appeared over the weekend in the New York Times, Gopnik used her own research to systematically knock down this particular insult, one thats use has been on the rise in our political discourse. If you continue to support our current president you might find her political critique outrageous, but her underlying point that "the analogy is profoundly wrong" and "unfair to children" is an important one.

Last week, I posted about the fact that young children are always listening. How must they feel about themselves when they overhear adults insulting one another by calling them "childish." I imagine the same way someone with a mental or physical handicap might feel when they hear the insults of "retard" or "cripple" bandied about, even if directed at others. The words we use around young children are always important, but never more so than when we feel compelled to criticize one another. Insults are never a good look, but insults that simultaneously and prejudicially smear a large portion of our population are never okay.

Indeed, from where I sit, knowing what I know, to call someone "childlike" is not an insult at all, but rather a compliment of the highest order. If we could all be more childlike, the world would be a far better place.

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