General H. Norman Schwarzkopf on Being Seven Years Old

I am reading through General H. Norman Schwarzkopf’s autobiography “It Doesn’t Take a Hero,” written with Peter Petre and published by Bantam Books in 1992. One paragraph, on page 9 of the hardcover edition, stands out to me in illustrating the difference between the way adults think and the way a seven-year-old boy thinks. The explanatory comments in parantheses are my own.

When I visited there (Fort Hancock, one of the installations that guards the Port of New York) I was in a frenzy of anticipation, because he’d (his father, a military leader) promised to show me the fort’s “disappearing guns.” The idea of something that disappeared fascinated me. These were the days of Mandrake the Magician, who could make himself vanish and come back. I didn’t want to be too pushy when we got to the fort, but I could hardly wait to see the guns. When I finally did, I was horribly disappointed. They were guns mounted on platforms that could be elevated above the embankment when it was time to fire, then quickly brought back down so the enemy couldn’t shoot at them directly. But if you were standing behind the embankment, where we were, they didn’t disappear at all. I don’t think he realized how literal-minded a seven-year-old can be.

General Shwartzkopf’s personal anecdote vividly demonstrates the concrete thinking of a child’s mind and how confusing the comments which adults make might seem to children. In our ministries to children, whether we are talking to them, doing a puppet show, putting on a skit or play, singing, or whatever the activity might be, the minds of kids are processing everything we say, sing and do. Literally. Concretely. Taking it at face value. What a responsibility we have!

It reminds me constantly to take an inventory of the level of vocabulary I use with young children, the types of skits or puppet productions I employ, and the way I answer their heart-felt questions about life and about God. It also reminds me to pre-screen the limited amount of videos I show to them, to ensure they are age-appropriate. That is to say, I want to be sure that the level of communication causes understanding, rather than confusion.

It is not a matter of dumbing down our content. It is a matter of refining the effectiveness of our communication strategies by selecting appropriate content, effective communication techniques, and understandable vocabulary which translates ideas concretely and clearly, while also dangling the carrot of challenging learning before each child, inspiring them daily to deeper spiritual formation and greater personal development.

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