Father and son on the soccer field

Columnist Ken Witmer this week continues his series about fatherhood.

(Disclaimer: In using the term “father,” I am referring to biological fathers, adopted fathers or any father figure.) 

One afternoon, I was watching my sons and a neighbor boy playing a game of wiffleball baseball in the side yard. Ben, at age 5+, was pitching; Dusty, the neighbor boy, also 5+, was up to bat; Nat, 8, was the infielder; and Jon, at 12 years of age, was in the outfield.

Ben’s pitch was good, and Dusty sent the ball rolling to the infield toward third base. Instinctively, Dusty ran in the direction of the ball. The hit was good enough that Dusty could have easily made it safely to first base before Nat could retrieve the ball, but Dusty ran to third base. Although Dusty made it to third base, Nat ran over, touched first base and exclaimed in a loud voice, “You’re out Dusty.”

Now, Jon, in the outfield, saw the sad look on Dusty’s face and, feeling bad for him, said, “No, Nat, just let him go over to first!”

“No way, he’s out,” replies Nat.

To which Jon tries to add some reason to the discussion by saying, “Look, Nat, it’s the same distance; he just went the wrong way!”

Nat, steadfast in his position, shouts, “The rule is you first go to first base!”

Ben and Dusty just look on as if glad not to be involved in the argument.

In disgust, Nat says, “I quit; Jon’s a cheater!”

The game comes to a sudden end! Nat goes inside; Ben and Dusty go off together, seemingly not bothered by the ordeal; and Jon, obviously not caring to give more thought to the incident, heads toward a friend’s house.

This typical childhood episode nicely illustrates the latter two stages of the cognitive development model of Jean Piaget: the concrete operational stage, around 7 to 11 years old; and the formal operational stage, typically 12 years and older.

Nat interpreted Dusty’s error concretely: he failed to go to first base, as is the rule, so he is out! No mitigating reasoning made sense to this concrete operational thinker. Being 8 years old, Nat mainly viewed the action as black or white; circumstantial reasoning was a bit beyond his mental capacity at that age.

On the other hand, Jon’s cognitive ability had developed to the point where he could think more abstractly and come up with reasonable options for considering Dusty’s mistake and apply them to the situation in a meaningful way. He could also put himself in Dusty’s place and feel empathetic, which requires a more sophisticated cognitive processing.

As adults, we employ the various levels of Piaget’s cognitive development model consistent with the situation in which we find ourselves. But our children are only capable of reasoning and thinking in the way their mental maturity can support.

While interacting with our children, we must realize they may not be able to understand the abstract, more formal thinking that seems so obvious to us. Being fathers requires us to keep in mind the level at which our children can mentally process their world. This helps us understand that their reactions, verbal utterances, and behaviors are often based on their ability to mentally process situations and events according to their stage of cognitive development.

What at times it may appear our children are being stubborn and unreasonable, it may well be they simply cannot reason at the level required. As fathers, it is our responsibility to be the most reasonable one!

Kenneth D. Witmer Jr., Ph.D., is a former dean of the College of Education & Social Work at West Chester University. A father of four and grandfather of eight, he and his wife recently moved to the Bethany Beach area.