We all know how literally children take our words. Not until the age of 6 or 7 at the earliest do children begin to grasp nuances of teasing, levity, or criticism. A fine example of this literal thinking occurred one morning as I was driving my six year old to school. I was listening to the market report and the financial guru said, “The dollar jumped against the German mark yesterday.” My six year old asked just how could a dollar jump? She had listened carefully and interpreted literally.

This observation is important in your teaching of children under the age of ten. They are mostly still literal thinkers. This is why teasing, sarcasm, and ridicule are so dangerous with young children. They assume the literal interpretation of your words. Teachers and parents may tease or ridicule a child over actions that are embarrassing to them without realizing that the problem is theirs, not the child’s. Don’t damage a child’s self-esteem over your hang-ups. Dobson and many other fine Christian counselors tell us that a child’s self esteem must be firmly in place before he starts school, or failure may easily set in when he thinks he is not capable or like other children because he has heard so much ridicule about his poor habits (or ones that his parents don’t like) and not enough about his good ones. It’s really about literal thinking.

Consider how many jokes your younger children don’t get or the fact that they don’t start telling jokes themselves until they are older. Why? Because they don’t get them! Of course, the precocious child will be ahead of the curve, but frequently, he will have to tell his jokes to older people, not to his peers.

Teachers (and that includes the ultimate teachers, parents) must take into account the thinking level of their students. So does that mean that one can’t laugh and have fun with young children? Of course not. The literal fun of humorous pictures or examples (see my column on potato heads of October, 2005) is what young children find enjoyable. They listen intently to skits, illustrated lessons, or puppet ministries because the words are acted out literally.

The point here is to measure your words carefully. Young children are literal. What about the teenager? They are much more capable of understanding levity and nuance, but they are also at one of the most vulnerable stages in their lives and may need more encouragement than you  realize. This is why it is important to begin lessons with a positive or encouraging statement. Even if your lesson is about the consequences of bad choices or wrong associations, a good teacher will start with the positive.