On Writing Child Characters: “Children Don’t Think Like Little Adults”
One of the challenges of writing great characters is getting inside the heads of persons of much different background than yourself. It takes great effort and empathy to understand those of differing gender, age, ethnicity, or orientation in order to portray such characters with authenticity. However, there is one type of character with whom we should all be able to relate. After all, it is the only group that every person has at one time been a part. I am referring to child characters. Yet strangely enough, child characters are those that most often come off as inauthentic. Many writers treat child characters as if they were simply small adults. This explains the overabundance of “precocious” children found in film and television. But the precocious are a rare find in real life. The great majority of children do not behave like adults. They think, act, and see the world in a much different way. As we mature, we tend to forget the unique ways our minds worked when we were young. Unless a writer can get back inside the head of a child, such characters will not ring true.
Whether a child is four years old or thirteen, his or her mind is a project still under development, one that changes a great deal as the child grows. To help the screenwriter learn where his or her particular child character is in this process, this article presents a brief look at several concepts found in developmental psychology the can be adapted to scene action and character behavior. This begins with the ways children view reality itself.
1. Concrete to Abstract Thought
The youngest of children live in a world made of only what their five senses can tell them. They only understand that which is real, solid, and physically present. If it cannot be directly observed or visually imagined, it might as well not exist. Children then turn those perceptions into inflexible notions that landmark psychologist Jean Piaget referred to as “false absolutes.” Things can only be the way the child believes them to be. This means hypothetical thought is impossible. Consider this experiment: Children of various ages were asked, “If all dogs are pink, and I have a dog, what color is it?” Older children recognized they were being asked to consider a hypothetical world where all dogs are in fact pink. Young children, however, did not even entertain such a notion. They knew that dogs could NOT be pink. Since the question ran counter to what the children believed to be an absolute fact, they instead argued or even rejected the question outright since their minds could not yet consider an idea so disconnected from concrete reality.
Thought becomes less rigid as children reach middle childhood (age 7-11). They advance beyond judging situations by appearance alone and develop the ability to logically infer what cannot be seen. Children begin to recognize that events can have multiple causes or multiple outcomes, and can then use available evidence to find the most reasonable conclusion. But even at this stage, children often fail to grasp any meaning beyond face value.
Metaphors, symbolism, and other non-literal forms of meaning remain lost on them. Such things belong to abstract reasoning, something for which most children are not ready until the onset of puberty.
Very young children hold the impression that their way of thinking is the only possible way, and therefore must be correct. They do not understand that others have thoughts or opinions different from their own. This is known as egocentrism. If the young child encounters behavior contrary to his or her viewpoint, the child becomes confused, frustrated, or angry. For example, a child wants a cookie. However, it is nearly dinnertime, so his mother denies the request. Unable to comprehend that mother has a legitimate reason for denial, the child throws a fit since he can only conclude that mother is being unfair.
Egocentrism starts to decline as children socialize with peers of their own age, usually beginning in earnest once the child begins grade school. Social interaction allows the child to recognize that others see things in different ways. By middle childhood, the child has grown fully aware that we are all separate minds of differing thoughts and emotions. However, the child still struggles to predict what another’s thoughts or emotions might be. This leads to much confusion and curiosity when dealing with adults and peers alike. It is not until the child has had the opportunity to forge stronger social bonds and gain the capabilities of abstract thought that he or she can accurately ascertain what may or may not go on inside the minds of others. This marks a milestone in social development. The child is now able to respect others for their individual viewpoints, rather than reject them for failing to conform to their own.
Unfortunately, some never reach this stage. Children raised in isolation or those rejected by their peers may never gain enough social experience to fully overcome their egocentrism. Unable to relate to others, the child may grow socially distant, possibly leading to deviant behavior.
3. Child Logic
An episode of NPR’s “This American Life” opened with a story in which little girl’s best friend came to her with a startling revelation. The friend had lost a baby tooth, and as most children do, placed it under her pillow for the Tooth Fairy. Only she awoke in the night to find not some glittering fairy, but her own father exchanging the tooth for money. From this, the two girls could form only one logical conclusion: the friend’s father lived a double life in which he was in fact the mythical Tooth Fairy!
The problem with seeing the world in false absolutes is that once a child accepts notions as facts, it becomes nearly impossible to break them. Whereas an adult would see two contradictory premises and realize one must be incorrect, a child will contrive fantastical assertions that allow both premises to remain valid. Rather than consider that the Tooth Fairy may not exist, the girls in the NPR story found it more plausible that a run-of-the-mill father donned fairy wings to exchange teeth for money.
Children take wild leaps of logic in many situations. Any time a child observes a curious situation but lacks the facts to explain it, he or she will “fill the gap” with contrivances that allow things to make sense, regardless of how ludicrous the conclusion may be. Interestingly enough, this urge to fill the gap is at the origins of storytelling itself. As mentioned in my book Screenwriting Down to the Atoms, when ancient cultures encountered natural phenomena they could not explain, they invented answers through tales of magic and deities so things appeared to make sense. Children do the same thing. For a child, fantasy is preferable to ignorance. It is not until a child has reached the middle stages of development that he or she is able to question ideas, weigh evidence, and then judge veracity. Still, the child remains unable to reason with abstract concepts until he or she approaches teenhood.
4. Morals and Ethics
“Right” and “Wrong” are abstract social concepts, and thus must build over time. A child is born an ethical blank slate. A toddler does whatever he or she pleases, and if denied, throws a fit. The first glimmers of morality are really nothing more than the result of simple conditioning. Do “good” and the child is rewarded. Do “bad” and the child is punished. Because of this, young children view act based upon personal consequence rather than any ethical notion of right or wrong. Should parents fail to consistently discipline a child at this age, the child will continue to behave antisocially since he or she has been given no cause to think there is something wrong with such behavior.
As socialization increases and egocentrism declines, children grow to understand how their actions affect others. The child’s view of morality shifts to one based on “fairness.” Reciprocity becomes key: “Act unto others as you would like them to act unto you.” However, a child’s ability to reason is still too rigid at this stage to separate an action from its intent. Breaking a rule is seen as wrong, regardless of why it was done. Consider this question: “Karen took $2 from her mother’s purse without asking and spent it on candy. Sarah took $6 from her mother to help a needy friend. Who deserves the worse punishment?” An older child will realize Karen stole for selfish reasons while Sarah took money for an act of kindness. Karen is therefore the worse offender. However, an early or middle-age child will simply see that $6 is more than $2 and declare Sarah the worse. Like when performing logical operations, a child’s mind must mature to a certain level of abstract thought before he or she can weigh a premise and find meaning beyond the surface. Because of this, children under the age of twelve tend to follow rules unquestionably, while more mature children can evaluate rules, judge their intentions, and then decide whether or not the rule ought to be followed. These children now think for themselves and make their own moral decisions. It is not until this point that a real sense of right or wrong exists.
Though psychologists have found a consistent pattern by which children develop, a writer must be aware that no child develops along a perfect timeline. Each child’s mental and social ability is affected not only by age, but by environmental factors as well. Most important amongst these factors is the quantity and quality of support and discipline the child receives from authority figures, as well as the level of acceptance or rejection the child receives from peers. When constructing a child character, a writer must, as for any character, look into the child’s background and identify what physical and social factors exist that may help or harm psychological development and then portray the character accordingly.
Above all, one must resist approaching child characters from the mindset of an adult. This encourages an egocentrism of an adult kind. Instead, go beyond how children appear to behave and get inside their heads to see the story world from their own still-developing eyes. Children do not act like adults. But they are not random, irrational creatures either. They think and behave according to their own rules. Understanding these rules is the best way to make child characters authentic.
Michael Welles Schock