I was recently corrected when I referred to a teenager as 13 ½ years old. The young man informed me, in a sophisticated manner, that he doesn’t “use halves any more.” I smiled and was reminded of how important it is to take a child’s developmental level into consideration when interacting with children about the issue of time.
Time is an abstract concept like freedom, justice, or morality. Infants are not born with an automatic understanding of abstract concepts. Children are very concrete. They can typically only understand things they can see, hear, touch, taste, or smell. Time passes without touching any of those senses, and thus, children don’t really get it. They don’t understand how little time you think there is. They don’t understand when they’re wasting your time. They have no concept that one day ends and another begins with 24 brand new hours of possibilities and responsibilities. Youngsters live in the moment and simply have no concept of time.
Long about 7 years of age, maybe 8, or even 9, a child will begin to grasp the concept of time, and it really requires concrete objects like a clock, a watch, or a timer to help them learn. They may learn the language around time, like bedtime being 8 o’clock or leaving in 10 minutes, but they still don’t really get the full and complex nature of time.
Children learn by repetition and they need hundreds or thousands of repetitions of some things before they become internalized. Thus, after a child has lived for several thousand days, they finally get it that each night when they go to sleep is the close of one day and that when they wake in the morning a new day begins, independent of the previous days. However, four or five thousand days are only about 12 years and 12 is too small a number for them to truly have the concept of a year down. If you tell a pre-teen she has to wait a year before starting to wear make-up, you may as well just tell her she’ll never have a boyfriend as long as she lives and that she will die alone with no friends because a year will seem like a lifetime to someone who has not fully incorporated the concept.
By the time kids enter high school, they have a general idea about weeks and months, and a cursory idea about years, but the concept of 4 years, as a unit of time still eludes them. They live one year at a time with each year having great significance. Fourteen is a drastically different age than 13, which is very different than 12. Although their parents know they’ll be adults in just four “short” years, the high school student has absolutely no concept of that much time being able to actually pass during their lifetime.
High School graduation brings home to them the concept of a major chunk of time having been spent to accomplish some goal, reach some ending point, and when they think about a 4-year college, they realize that they’ll be able to complete that 4-year task in the same amount of time it took them to start and finish high school. They are just now becoming able to see the idea of purposefully investing time to obtain some result. Thus, at any time before high school graduation, it is essential to really take a kid’s developmental level into consideration when addressing issues of time.