How much is six plus four plus five? Did you put together the six and the four first because six plus four is ten and it’s easy to add stuff to ten? Or did you notice that four, five, and six are all in a row so six plus four plus five must be the same as three times five, the middle number? Or did you use some other strategy, one that I wouldn’t think of in a million years? Surely you didn’t think of the Dad Joke: why are four and six angry with five? Because five is mean to them. (“Mean” as in average or “arithmetic mean”. Five is the mean of four and six. Get it?)
It’s hard for me to know how you added six plus four plus five. Indeed, it’s hard to know what someone else is thinking never mind why they are thinking it. (If I thought you could tolerate one more Dad Joke in this essay, I would point out that it’s hard to get into someone else’s head because there’s hardly any room in there between their brain and their skull.)
Similarly, it’s easy to see how your kids are behaving. But you have to have a special relationship with your children in order to have any valid insight into what they are thinking and why. Which is not to suggest that there is a good reason that there is jam on the cat, only that there may be more than one explanation for a sticky, strawberry-covered feline. None of the justifications is reasonable, but distinguishable nonetheless. I wanted to make my little sister laugh is a long way from I wanted to hurt the family pet.
Kids seem to derive their own meaning from their experience. Indeed, it could be argued that the whole point of being a child is to figure out how the world works and your place in it.
“Show your work!” I intoned when I was teaching math. My goal—rational, I would still argue—was to help my students perfect their thinking by showing them where they went off track in solving problems. I was good at factoring quadratics; if the kids would think like I thought, they could get answers effectively as well. In retrospect, perhaps I could have been of more use by allowing the kids to articulate their own process.
And if you agree with me that cognitive development is a hard deer to hunt, what about moral and ethical progress? How do we impart our sense of responsibility, decency, and honor? What about good judgment? How do we encourage our kids to adopt our values? How do we increase the odds that they stay safe?
Lawrence Kohlberg studied stages of moral development. In his most important study—or the only one I remember from graduate school anyway—he talked about levels, a hierarchy. Why didn’t a kid take a cookie from the jar? Knowing they would be punished was one possibility. Knowing that if they took a cookie there wouldn’t be enough cookies for the other children was another. Thinking about other kids was a higher order of moral development than just being concerned about punishment.
I’m no Lawrence Kohlberg. But I am desperately interested in whether a kid gets into a car with another teen who “has only had two beers.” From a cognitive standpoint, you’d have to be staggeringly arithmetically impaired to believe that the slurring would-be driver’s account. Two beers is not the same as seven beers.
Again, I don’t know what goes on in another person’s head. Sometimes attempting to keep track of my own thoughts is like trying to read a bowl of alphabet soup. But I would argue that if a teen is thinking if I call my parents they’re going to be angry and won’t want to come get me because they have golf in the morning and didn’t want me to go to this party in the first place but if I get a ride with this kid I’ll probably be okay, they didn’t seem that woozy and besides all these other kids are going then the opportunities for tragic headlines is increased. Somehow the kid has to be able to come up with I’ll call an Uber or I’ll call my parents or I’ll walk 12 miles or I’ll sleep in the park or I’ll do anything other than get in the car with that insistent, schnockered kid.
Communicating unequivocally to your beloved children that mom or dad will come get you, you don’t have to get a ride with anyone who makes you uncomfortable, no questions asked, is a good step in the direction of having your kids get the right answer. And not getting in that car is significantly more important than knowing what six plus four plus five is.