1. Three-year-old Will understands that his tricycle isn't alive and can't feel or move on its own. Yet on a trip to the beach, as the sun dipped below the horizon, Will exclaimed: "The sun is tired. It's going to sleep." What explains this apparent contradiction in Will's reasoning?
2. Chandra heard a news report about ten severely neglected children, living in squalor in an inner-city tenement. She wondered, "Why would parents mistreat their children?" How would you answer Chandra?
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Why an individual child’s imagination works the way it does is one of the mysteries of the universe that will likely never be known with absolute certainty. A child’s brain is rapidly developing and children in general are products of both hereditary and environmental factors. A child’s imagination can be expected to manifest itself in any number of ways, and demanding logic is an unreasonable expectation. Just as it is often unproductive, or even counterproductive, to ask a child why he or she did something wrong, as children often act without thinking about consequences, it is even more unproductive to try and definitively state a reason for a child’s displays of imagination. When inquiring or contemplating why that imagination would manifest itself in one way and then manifest itself another way under different circumstances is simply a product of that individual child’s emotional and intellectual framework.
As difficult as it is to understand a child’s reaction to external stimuli with absolute or a high degree of certainty, it is even more difficult to understand a child of three years of age. Children of that age are boiling cauldrons of unexplainable inconsistencies. They can demonstrate eminently rational thought processes and then, in the blink of any eye, revert to a mental state more characteristic of a room full of preschoolers. Children of that age often project human characteristics onto inanimate objects, and even conjure up imaginary friends. It is not a consistent phenomenon. For a child to view a tricycle as the inanimate object that it is, and then to suggest through verbal expression that the Sun is possessed of some form of humanity is not at all unusual. The entire concept of a “man on the moon” (obviously excluding actual instances of men walking on the surface of the moon) is a product of peoples’ imaginations in which natural physical features visible on the moon that may appear from Earth to resemble a human face leads invariably to suggestions that there is, in fact, a man on or in the moon.
Another factor at work with respect to the seeming inconsistency about viewing inanimate objects through different prisms is the natural movement of some objects, particularly the Sun and the Moon. We know, of course, that the Sun isn’t orbiting the Earth but rather that the Earth orbits the Sun. All a three-year-old child knows is that the land upon which he or she is standing doesn’t seem to be moving (despite the fact that it is actually rotating very rapidly while orbiting the Sun) but that the Sun and the Moon are there one minute and gone the next. That assumption of movement suggests to a very young child that movement equals feelings, which equals humanity. The child is investing the object with a humanity that obviously doesn’t exist. Children invest toys, especially stuffed animals, with a humanity that doesn’t exist, so why not objects that come and go on a regular basis like the Sun, especially given the association of the Sun’s appearance and disappearance with daily routine. A tricycle, in contrast, is a tool the child uses or with which he or she plays, and so that object is less likely to observed as possessed of feelings or emotions.
With regard to the second question – Chandra’s concern about the welfare of neglected children living in squalor in an inner-city tenement – there are, unsurprisingly, multiple reasons why that condition exists. As we know, breaking out of the cycle of poverty is inordinately difficult. And the myriad social problems associated with endemic poverty are well-known, including broken families, teenage pregnancies, drug and alcohol abuse, and violent crime. We also know that neglect is a form of child abuse. Unfortunately, the problems associated with poverty, including unemployment, lend themselves to neglect as well as physical abuse. The chronically unemployed are vulnerable to substance abuse, which, in the case of illegal drugs, becomes a major part of the aforementioned cycle. The addiction that may result from economic despair requires an unending source of revenue with which to purchase more drugs. The cost of supporting an addiction to heroin or many other illegal drugs can be enormous, and families already living in poverty, the parent or parents of which are caught in that unending cycle of “fix followed by waste of welfare money or theft to purchase more drugs” will inevitably witness the mental decline of their children.
Children living in squalor may be doing so because of the hopelessness and despair with which their parents are inculcated through generations of poverty. Any social worker knows that. The single-parent families that are prevalent in inner-city ghettos, often involving a mother who has to work full-time to support her children and, consequently, is not available to those children as much as would be ideal, leaves the children victim to the kind of environment that breeds developmental problems that won’t be adequately addressed in the schools that service that community.
Another possible reason for the conditions observed by “Chandra” could be hereditary. As we also know, abused children often grow up to be abusive parents – another vicious cycle that is sadly difficult to break. The social environment in which these children live almost certainly includes physically and emotionally abusive adults. Mental illness among parents could be a factor, and substance abuse can be hereditary, and the home-life of children in such a situation is not going to be emotionally healthy. In short, the children’s situation could be attributable to any number of factors. It is unlikely that “Chandra” would be oblivious to the possibility that the environment in which these children are being raised is connected to the cycle of poverty that characterizes inner-city tenements. That environment includes wide-spread substance abuse, often open-air displays of drug trafficking, and often the gang violence that grows out of dysfunctional situations. Unfortunately, for many youth, gangs provide the closest thing to a “stable family environment” they will ever know, and gang membership provides a sense of physical security that is absent in the home and at school. The connection between gangs and drugs and violence is all a part of that larger equation. The endemic poverty in which families become trapped, however, is the root cause of many of the problems that lead to the abysmal environment in which these children live.
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