Are We There Yet?

Few things are as incomprehensible to young children as the concept of time. Trying to explain when the next meal will be served, how long this trip is taking, or when some important event will take place only leads to an endless series of queries about reaching the objective. Adults continuously try to use words, another very abstract process, to explain an even more abstract process. It leaves children befuddled, frustrated, and sometimes anxious.

The key point is that children are very concrete in their thinking. Their preferred modes for trying to understand the complex world in which they live are what they can see and touch. It’s what they can actually experience as opposed to what they hear. Processing language, especially orally, is the most challenging of all sensory tasks. Perhaps because adults are so used to operating in that mode, they forget that their children, as verbal as they may be, have a very limited capacity to understand what is being said to them.

All this came to mind recently when a father was describing how his 5-year-old son was already expressing anxiety about starting first grade in September. The father had struggled to reduce some of the anxiety by trying to explain how far away September was but nothing worked. He did address some of the child’s concerns about change such as a new teacher, new building, and new classmates. But knowing his son’s tendency to worry in a preservative manner, the father wanted to find a way to help his son enjoy his summer more by understanding this change would not take place for months. “What’s a month?” An incomprehensible period of time to a young child.

By focusing on the need for a more tangible way to explain time, we generated the following idea. Line up on some shelves a series of upside down paper cups equal to the number of days until the first day of school. Each night, while getting ready for bed, the child would remove one cup. He might even count the remaining cups. After several nights, it would provide a clearer sense of how very long it was going take to reach that final cup. We thought this might provide a tangible way to help the child contain his anxiety. To further enhance the process (this is why the cups are upside down), we came up with the idea of sticking toothpicks in those cups that represented days of important events over the course of the summer. Little flags would be glued on to represent the last day of school, the July 4th cookout and fireworks, a sibling’s July birthday, a grandparents’ visit in late July, and the family’s week at the Cape in August.

These flags helped to break up the otherwise boring, and therefore, still confusing, visual timeline that we had created. Even more important, involving the child in making these flags could give the child a sense of some control over the entire process and I anticipated it would help to reduce his anxiety. As much as we sometimes experience our young children as controlling, in fact they are very much experiencing themselves as having very little control over the events in their lives. Their perception is very accurate. This contributes to the frequent disruptive behaviors in young children as they try to find a way to exert some control over their lives.

This paper cup timeline led me to thinking about one of the most common annoying behaviors in children: The car trip when the child keeps asking, “Are we there yet?” I would suggest creating some type of travel time line that could be brought along for the ride. It could be a board with a slot for a cardboard cutout of the car or a felt board with a car and a line representing the trip. In addition to visual representations of the starting point and the destination, try to add images of some significant markers that will be passed along the way. The line representing the trip should probably be divided into segments representing 5, 10, or 15-minute time blocks, depending upon the length of the trip and the age of the child.

The parent keeps having the child move the car along the line at the appropriate intervals so the child is an active participant in the process. When you get to a segment where the child is going to see a visual marker outside the car (a recognizable building, bridge, highway change, etc.), it provides some short-term excitement in looking for the marker. Of course, unexpected travel delays can throw off the timing, so it is best to have a system that allows for extra time segments to be added if necessary!

Obviously these ideas are not presented as THE way to carry out the concept. Parents are primarily being encouraged to remember how much children rely on what they can see and touch to understand time and other abstract concepts. You are encouraged to be as creative as possible in coming up with ideas that work for your children. I’d love to hear about them.