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Are we underestimating our kids?

Children often know more, feel more and are more cognitively capable than adults give them credit. Michelle Wheeler explores the mounting evidence that shows when given the opportunity, kids have a lot they can teach us.

What can kids teach us, if only we’d ask?

While studying the impact of full and low-fat dairy products on kids, ECU nutrition researcher Associate Professor Therese O’Sullivan needed her four to six-year-old subjects to go through a lot.

O’Sullivan’s study included asking children to sit in an enclosed machine that measures body composition, collect stool samples and have blood tests – twice.

It was the first study of its kind, and the research team questioned whether it would be all too hard for children.

But with the experience of raising young kids of her own, O’Sullivan wanted to try an unconventional approach. She decided to give the children all the information up front about what was going to happen in every session and why.

If kids asked if a test would hurt, the researchers were honest. And if their concerns were not alleviated and a child put their foot down, the researchers respected their wishes and did not force them to do the assessments.

“If you’re involving adults in research, you don’t just tell them to go and stand in a machine without giving them the whole background of why you’re doing it,” O’Sullivan says.

“A lot of adults won’t give you a blood test for research purposes, so we need to have the same expectation for kids; that some kids will and some kids won’t.”

In the end, more than 70 per cent of children in the study held out their arm for blood tests. If we’ve underestimated children’s ability to comprehend research aims and their willingness to undergo painful or scary tests to help others, where else might we not be giving kids the credit they deserve?

And can we allow them to make more decisions about things that directly impact them?

What children want

ECU nursing lecturer Dr Mandie Jane Foster was part of a project that asked almost 200 school-aged children in Australia and New Zealand what was important to them while in hospital.

The kids reported they wanted to have their parents with them and for their parents to be looked after with places to sleep, shower and get food.

They wanted to be able to go back to school or, for younger children, to be able to go home and play with family members.

They wanted books to read, to feel safe, to be listened to, and not to see other children sad or upset. They wanted staff to spend time with them “just chatting about stuff”.

Foster says adults naturally advocate for and protect children, but this means we can forget to ask children about their views.

“A child’s perspective may be different from an adult’s perspective of what is important and needed,” she says.

Where it’s not in a child’s best interests to give them what they ask for – a bowl of ice-cream might not be possible for a child about to undergo surgery – Foster advises offering children an explanation and choices.

“It’s not just about giving them what they want,” she says.

“It’s actually about engaging them in conversation and providing [age appropriate] relevant answers.”

The online world

ECU Professor of Communications Lelia Green is researching the impact of online pornography on teenagers. She says more than half of 13-year‑old boys and 15-year-old girls have viewed sexual content online, either intentionally or accidently.

Green says parents can become trapped in a circular argument that prevents them from talking to their kids about pornography because they shouldn’t have seen it in the first place.

“We’ve painted ourselves into a corner,” she says.

If we don’t address the possibility that our teens can view, or have viewed, sexual content online, we could miss a valuable opportunity to discuss and understand what they might see or have seen, and their ability to handle it.

Online pornography can leave teenagers traumatised. Green says some teenagers, however, are able to cope with what they see.

She recalls one teenage boy who wanted his parents to know he understood that you don’t drive a car like Fast and Furious and you don’t run a relationship like a porno.

Green says parents should absolutely talk to their children about sexual content online, if they can.

And it should be a deeper conversation about what everyday human intimacy is like – not about the teenager having done the wrong thing.

“Kids don’t want to sign up to be told that they got into trouble, and then also not get to have the discussion they want,” Green says.

Asking kids how they want to learn

It’s all well and good asking a child for their views, one-on-one. But what would happen if you turned over a classroom to a troop of five-year-olds?

ECU early childhood lecturer Amelia Ruscoe led a study that asked pre-primary students how they think they learn best.

She found when the reins were handed over to children, the result was far from anarchy.

The students wanted the teacher to set the tone so that they felt safe and got equal access to things in the classroom.

Ruscoe says adults typically don’t ask children what they think because they assume young children don’t have the cognitive ability to handle abstract ideas.

“I discovered that virtually no studies had looked at anything to do with metacognition with children under five,” she says.

“Young children can most certainly talk about abstract things and can talk about conditions for learning, and what they came up with was insightful.”

To hug or not to hug

Last year, O’Sullivan wrote a popular article in The Conversation advocating for children’s right not to be forced to hug distant relatives.

In it, she paints a picture of a grandmother visiting from interstate for Christmas who is eager to scoop up her grandchildren and smother them with kisses as soon as she walks in the door.

For a young child, however, being forcibly hugged by someone they don’t know well could be unsettling.

O’Sullivan suggests parents should prime relatives in advance to ask their children if they would like a hug, and to respect their wishes.

“Children may prefer a more comfortable alternative, like a high five, and their preference can change over time as their relationship with the relative strengthens,” she says.

O’Sullivan recalls a conversation that changed her interactions with her own children and led to her adopting the ‘respectful approach’ parenting style.

She’d been struggling to change the nappy of her free-spirited one-year-old son, who much preferred running around with his nappy half off.

But then a friend and parenting expert simply suggested O’Sullivan ask her son where he would like to have his nappy changed.

“I’d never given him any choice in any of these things,” O’Sullivan says.

“When I asked him this, he found a spot and was suddenly helping me. My whole philosophy changed.”

Recently, O’Sullivan’s PhD student Mandy Richardson ran a pilot study of respectful approach parenting with the parents of 15 babies and toddlers at ECU.

Richardson found that parents who participated in a respectful approach session once a week for six weeks reported feeling more competent at parenting and less stressed than controls.

O’Sullivan says we need to value kids as unique individuals, communicate openly with them, and put ourselves in their shoes.

“What would be really good is if people could read this article and maybe just consider that next time they’re dealing with a small child,” she says.

“Just think of them as people and show them the same respect that you would show to any other human being.”

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