Appalled by how some people consider children to have a “limited understanding of the world” and fail to see that quite the contrary their understanding is limitless, not bounded by common sense or all the restrictions that comes with “conventional” understanding and knowledge, I just wrote a lengthy response on Quora to a parent’s request for advice on dealing with a child's feelings during a divorce, which I reproduce in full here.
While the “happy go lucky continuity”, “we the adults know better” and “it will be good for you” focus of the advice commonly provided might make parents feel better and reassured that they are protecting their child, I find it ineffective to address your child in such a condescending way and misleading to think it works.
As a father of a happy, smart and curious 6 years old, I can attest that children are much more perceptive than you give them credit for. To think they have a “limited understanding of the world” is a flawed, myopic and even dangerous perspective.
Children have a wide understanding of the world and in particular of their surroundings and immediate environment.
It might not be the “right” one, but they do have an explanation for everything. And for what they don’t have an explanation, they create one, sometimes accurate, sometimes wild.
In one of his books, Piaget relates how a very young and vivacious girl explains to him that the wind is created when the trees shake their leaves while she runs around and waves her arms to illustrate her discovery. My son just told me last week that the best way to save yourself from a hammerhead shark attack would be to place an anvil nearby so that he would be distracted hammering away at it while you escape.
Their understanding is not “limited”, quite contrary it’s limitless, not bounded by common sense or all the restrictions that comes with “conventional” understanding and knowledge. They are creative, they are learning, they are interpreting, they are looking for answers and revel in creating their own answers and interpretations.
Parental guidance does play however a significant role in this process. So talking to your child and reassuring him things will be OK and that a situation is the responsibility of adults and others, not his, is important.
But approach him in a horizontal, peer-like and honest conversation. So that he feels addressed as someone relevant and growing.
For your child will have to grow as part of this change. He /she will have to deal with plenty of mixed feelings and divisive experiences: going to the movies with dad, beach trips with mom, splitting his experiences between the two people he/she loves the most and who love hime the most and matter most for him.
Continuity, in a big way, is gone.
Changes are coming. Prepare your child for that. And reassure your child that among all these changes, the most important things will remain unchanged: the love of mom and dad, the bond of the family and the complicity of all to navigate and thrive in life.
Things will change, and regardless of how much we try to protect him/her, the child will experience some tough things and situations like mom being sad, dad being angry at times or vice versa.
Explain that some of these changes will be difficult, but that we will pull through as a whole, together as a family, but in a different kind of together. The family bond will never break, regardless of mom and dad being apart and in separate places now. Love remains, grows and will pull us through the changes.
To claim that school, neighborhood, friends will remain the same is like pointing to a teenager who is going through a first emotional break-up that although his/her first love is over, the school, friends, neighborhood, pizza place, mall, park, movie theater remain the same and that he/she can and will meet other people and find love.
No, things will not be the same and it’s hard to see how they will be better. Because for a broken heart, all those things are now meaningless without the loved one.
Same for a child. What good is school, friends, toys, two houses, if he/she doesn’t get to spend quality fun time with mom and dad? If he/she has to tell his/her stories twice and envision his/her dream of going somewhere (Hawaii, amusement park, Mars, outerspace, depths of the ocean, top of a mountain) with mom or dad but not both.
As to the legitimate worry about the child feeling guilty or responsible through his/her behavior for the separation, it can be addressed in the same honest and respectful manner:
“We are separating because our behavior and the feelings between us, which have changed, not yours. Our love for each other remains and our love for you remains and grows and is unrelated to your behavior, although we need to work on improving that and we will continue to do so as parents who love you”.
It is understandable to feel guilty, lost, unsure of how to respond. Our child's life is about to change, or already changing. He/she is being affected, impacted by our decision, although he/she has done nothing wrong or cause it. This might be an early lesson on life's unfairness and dealing with things beyond our control and an opportunity that although there are things which are not our responsibility, it is our responsibility to make the best out of each situation.
Another, very important approach step to take, this one suggested by my friend Anne, who, upon reading the first draft of this post, immediately commented: "écouter l'expression des émotions des enfants est la première chose à faire". So yes, please, listen to your children's emotions and encourage them to express them. Do take the time to listen and acknowledge their feelings, fears, frustrations, suggestions and even proposals and ideas.
Along with listening, comes our role in helping our child verbalize emotions. To assign words to feelings and express feelings into words. To identify and name their feelings and communicate them without fear or shame. It is normal to feel disappointed, sad, guilty, insecure, afraid, doubtful, shaken. But these might not be feelings the child is used to and will most likely not have a clue of how to handle them. We can work with our child to identify those feelings and find easy words he/she can understand and associate with them, so that he/she can share them and discuss them with us. We listen, judge not, and then talk about those feelings and direct our child towards a comfortable, shared experience.
Please, do not downplay your child's understanding, the impact of change and base your argument in continuity or we know better. And do not ignore your child’s infinite capacity for understanding and creating his/her own answers and explanation. Address things, real ones, take time, for whatever you don’t address, the child will address, interpret and explain on his/her own in creative and unexpected ways you can’t even imagine.