I studied painting in college, and my professor, Susan Gardner, insisted that budding artists needed to delve into art history alongside all their studio classes to approach their work with the same depth as a student of history. She taught me how to look closely, notice details, and wonder about the backstory of each component. This emphasis on curiosity remains a foundational directive of my life and educational philosophy.
At some point in a medieval art class, Professor Gardner lectured on the seemingly awkward rendition of children in the early Renaissance (you are familiar with this- think of the countless paintings of Baby Jesus rendered as some cross between a newborn and an octogenarian). I commented that babies are famously tricky to paint; I always make them look older than I intended. She generously affirmed my struggles and explained that children were perceived as smaller adults for most of history until around the nineteenth century, and, in fact, laws protecting children as a distinct class of human did not start to appear in the Western Legal canon until the early Twentieth Century. I have been thinking about that ever since- this was one of the many aha moments of learning that reframed how I look at the world.
The pendulum has swung to the opposite side for us twenty-first-century parents and educators who raise our kids in the Global North. Far from treating our children as shorter adults, we are often laser-focused on “developmentally appropriate.” Extensive research across fields of study has armed us, and sometimes burdened us, at every step of child development through the age of 25 with guidance on how to engage children in developmentally appropriate ways: how and when to encourage self-sufficiency, filter content, and use effective language. Many of us who grew up at a time before parenting classes, or even the use of the word “parenting” as a verb, feel that we would have benefited from grown-ups who were more developmentally appropriate. One specific example from the world of Jewish education is how Holocaust education has been reimagined in the last twenty years with all this research in mind.
The problem is that the world is not developmentally appropriate, and children walk through the same world as grown-ups. It never has been developmentally appropriate, and it doesn’t seem to be getting any more developmentally appropriate.
I would argue that this doesn’t have much to do with social media or access to information. Way before the internet, and not too long ago, child mortality rates were exponentially higher, and child labor was the norm. Those realities provided a lot of easy access to inappropriate content. Even today, we are all aware that children around the world and even within blocks of us in NYC live in very different realities based on their socioeconomic status, race, and a series of other variables. It’s not developmentally appropriate to grow up feeling a drive-by shooting, but it is the reality for way too many children in the US.
Nonetheless, we desperately try to keep our children protected from anything and everything that they shouldn’t be exposed to and that they are not developmentally ready to process. Most days, I feel so lucky to have the luxury even to try to shield them. On some days, I feel destroyed by my inability to protect them. I say this as a parent and educator who has the privilege to shape one of the most developmentally appropriate childhood experiences in the history of the world.
But, my heart is beyond heavy at this moment as an adult who cares for children the majority of every day.
Like all of us, I am holding images and stories of Israeli children who have been brutally attacked, murdered, kidnapped, and traumatized. These are children of friends; they are real people whose parents’ posts I read daily- those who were lucky enough to still have parents. I am also thinking about all the children in Gaza, the fear, trauma, and loss. All these children deserve more empathy than could exist.
I am also thinking about my children, the ones I parent and teach. Our students walk by posters of Israeli hostages every day on their way to school. Many parents and teachers ask how to deal with this reality that their toddlers and teenagers are seeing. My students and my children have close family and friends living through war, kids their age with whom they are in regular contact. We have been welcoming new Israeli students who have come to New York because of the war; they are holding so much. Even those of us who have some measure of capacity to filter our speech around children and the content they consume online and in the world have a lot less control right now. And we are all aware of this, and I think many of us are unsure what to do. Bring it up? Avoid it? Hit the exact perfect balance?
On Tuesday evening, a television producer came to my home to interview a group of Jewish high school seniors, including my son, about their lives as Jewish teenagers during this war. I sat in the adjacent room for an hour, listening to their conversation. These teens had so much to say. I know my seventeen-year-old son is a thoughtful person by nature. He has also grown up in a home where Israel, the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, and the Jewish People are the default dinner conversation topics. But I could not have imagined how much he had to say and how sophisticated his thinking would be. It made me realize that even though he has had an unusually high level of close exposure to these complicated realities, I have not heard him speak uninterruptedly on these topics, most immediate to his heart and identity, at least for the last few weeks.
I am wondering whether I am not giving my children enough air time at the moment. For my older children, I may be unintentionally defaulting to explaining in an attempt to guide their thinking and opinions. For my younger child, I think I may be limiting the conversation too much to shelter her from the unfathomable. Either way, I heard a lot of my voice, and I didn’t even appreciate that until a camera crew forced me to remain quiet and listen.
This brings me back to when I first encountered the concept of developmentally appropriate in one of Professor Gardner’s art history classes. It was also the period where I was asked more than ever before and even after to look around me with curiosity, to verbalize what I was noticing, and to ask questions about what I saw. I could do that because I had an adult who cared, who respected my thoughts, and who engaged with my questions. She always pushed me to think more deeply, and she gave me a lot of time and airspace. I believe this is one of the things that is most important in the way we parent and teach children right now. We need to engage them courageously, create the time and space for them to ask, and answer unarguably in a way that keeps them asking.
When we walk by a hostage poster with a child who does not ask a question to prompt with a question that gives them the airtime they need, we do not have to stop them from pointing it out to a child who does not read and may not even have noticed, that would be developmentally inappropriate. But it is the perfect time to turn to your child while you continue to walk and ask, “what is one thing you are thinking right now,” or “how do you feel in your body right now,” and then ask follow-up questions. They are not little adults. In fact, they have a far larger capacity to think and feel in uninhibited ways, and we need to give them the space and the safety to do so. We need to convey to them that we want to hear their thoughts and that we can handle whatever they share and whatever they ask. Airtime is always developmentally appropriate, even if reality is not.