Now or Never

Adults often find children’s concept of time amusing. A child will use the word “yesterday” to mean anything that happened in the past. It isn’t that children don’t have a concept of time, it is simply that their conception is not fine tuned. “Yesterday” does refer to the past. Young children simply generalize the meaning of “yesterday” to mean everything in the past. They will eventually differentiate the past into more segments of time (last week, before you were born, last Spring, etc.).

The other way children use “time words” is to refer to how strong an emotion is. When a child is angry and says, “You’re never going to be my friend,” they aren’t referring to how long their anger will last. They are talking about the extent of their anger. An adult can tell them that they will be friends with the other child in a few minutes, but that doesn’t mean anything to the child. They are experiencing their present state without regard to the near future.

Young children look at the world like a slide show rather than a movie, one thing at a time (a metaphor introduced by Diane Levin). They can understand a sequence of events, but they don’t necessarily look at one event leading to another.

This slide show approach to life can be hard for an adult watching a child who is sad or angry. It can also be wonderful when the child is happy. This sense of the here-and-now is why a child can forget about the walk to the park when she finds a butterfly. Suddenly, the whole world is just a butterfly and the breeze bending a flower as it sips the nectar. The world becomes magical shifting from one experience to another.

When a child is upset, adults often have the best intentions when they tell them they won’t be experiencing this moment soon. What is more effective is to acknowledge the emotion. “I’m sorry you are sad. You don’t like to get your shirt wet. I will help you.”

No matter the exact words, the adult is saying, “I am here with you now.” And really, that is all that matters.