Ask any kid in the world what they want to be when they grow up, and they’ll give you brutally honest answers like astronaut, dancer, or even postman. Sometimes, they’ll even extend into surprisingly complex details with these type of questions. One 8-year old I met at a family dinner told me how he wanted to become an International Space Station officer and take it to the vast expanses of the universe in hopes of discovering extraterrestrial intelligence. Considering his age, I was awe-stricken by his level of knowledgeability and the confidence that he displayed through his story. When I was eight years old, I told my mom I wanted to become a dinosaur.
Kids are generally famous for two things, a radical sense of candor and an immense ability to imagine and conceptualise complex (though sometimes unrealistic) situations. That being said, although plenty of their ideas are flooded by a profound lack of practical knowledge, there are a lot of implicit cues about a child’s passion and love hidden within their intricately weaved stories — much more than we appreciate.
In order to better understand and spot the hidden messages behind these stories, it’s good to first understand that there are essentially two different storylines in play behind every internal script a child makes. One storyline is assumed in a very explicit sense. An example can be portrayed in this excerpt of a 10-year old’s story about how he wanted to become a sailor.
When I grow up, I want to become a sailor. I want to build a big boat, big enough to fit me and my friends, and then travel through all the seas in the world. I also want to discover all the hidden caves and islands that people have not discovered yet.
In the most explicit sense, we see the story as: the kid wants to become a sailor, build a boat, travel the seas, end of story. But there’s another storyline at play here, an idea that’s implicitly wrapped around this story. An subjective implicit inference we can make from the same excerpt could be more like: the kid is engrossed with mysteries and perhaps hopes to one day solve a mystery that has for the longest time eluded mankind — say uncover the deepest mystery of the Baltic Sea anomaly.
As adults, we are usually quick to assume the explicit plot-line. It’s the easier narrative for our brain to comprehend, which makes sense because actively attempting to process information often require a substantial amount of conscious effort. Our brain always strives to optimise cognitive functioning, and as a result, it will attempt to save up as much extraneous energy as possible. This is also why we prefer to indulge in a Game of Thrones screening rather than fixing up with Nietzsche’s epic but nefariously complex Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
By regressing to the default, we inadvertently dismiss the implicit — important ideas that the children are attempting to convey through their often ridiculous storylines. Like with paintings, most of us sometimes focus too much on the minor details — brush strokes, colour composition, shadows — that we essentially become blind to the true essence of the masterpiece.
When we fail to extract the core of their ideas, we sometimes unintentionally discourage kids from telling us their stories, or worse, stop making them altogether. This can have a profound impact on a kid’s future. Besides the fact that we may unwittingly hinder a child from training their creative muscles, they may also begin to lose trust and confidence in their goals and passions, conditions that require years of dedication and cultivating to reach complete fruition. If people are constantly downplaying your marketing strategy pitches and your product innovation presentations, you may just lose the resolve altogether. It’s important that we open our ears and minds to our youngsters and encourage them to confide in their beliefs and passion.
There’s no single correct way to tackle this misfortune, but I may have some ideas that may help prevent you from dismissing a child’s story too quickly. The first is quite simple: be a good listener. Nobody likes to have their story interrupted mid-way. Nobody likes talking to someone who they know aren’t giving them their full attention. If you’re going to listen to your children talk, be present in the moment, and be attentive.
The second point: do not discourage. As much as possible, try to play along their narrative. Co-operate with the child’s mental framework. In addition to that, ask follow-up questions that would trigger the child to further expand on their ideas, sometimes even challenge the plots and concepts, but frame it in a way that makes the children feel appreciated — this will often lead you to the uncover the true intent and core of their ideas.
Third, provide them with useful resources to broaden their scope of knowledge. Books, TV shows, educational games, and even community courses. Kids are sponges with new information, information that they can use as leverage to further guide them in their path towards success.
Most of all though, let kids just be kids.