Nothing sums up the difference in perception between adults and children as this illustration from the famous story The Little Prince. We all see what we choose to see based on where we are with our own understanding, what we know and what we have experienced. What we see as adults can often be very different to the reality because our habit of judgement often stands in our way.
When I think of perception, I am always taken back to a story about our family pet cockatoo. I was born to first generation migrant parents in Melbourne Australia. We lived in a small, single-fronted weatherboard house until I was 9. The house was set beside a ‘block of flats’ (now known as an apartment complex) in an inner city suburb. Back then it was not inhabited by open-minded artists and latte drinking hipsters but a complex mix of working class migrants. The flats attracted all sorts of people and unfortunately we had a neighbour who drank every night and then stood out on his balcony threatening to kill our beloved pet cockatoo. I remember this as a very frightening situation, mostly because my parent’s English was not so great and they felt very stressed being threatened by an English native in a country that was still so foreign to them. They didn’t know their rights and they didn’t have anyone who could help them.
One day my sisters and I woke to the news that we would be driving across town to visit our cousins who lived in the west. We were thrilled about a spontaneous visit to our cousin’s house, until my dad started to tie our pet cockatoo’s cage onto the roof racks of our car. I wasn’t even curious at that stage, I was just worried. I knew that something was happening and I was certain that I wouldn’t like it. It was then that my dad informed us that our pet cockatoo would have to live with our cousins so that the neighbour didn’t kill him.
As we prepared for the drive, our pet cockatoo was freaking out inside the car and the only way my dad could calm him down was by putting him back inside his familiar cage. Since the cage was too big to fit inside the car, the cockatoo made the journey across Melbourne on top of our family car. We drove very slowly with all the windows down, my dad talked to him the whole way so that he knew he wasn’t alone. The drive from Northcote to Newport was possibly the longest drive we had ever taken as a family.
I was the youngest and so I was the only one of my sisters who was still thinking like a real child. I was actually envious of our pet cockatoo because I had a thing about climbing on roofs and I thought that our cockatoo was up on the roof having a real adventure. Wind in his feathers, enjoying the scenery and all the attention. Until my oldest sister, a very fashionable teenager at the time, sunk into the car seat and sighed, “how embarrassing! Obviously, my perception of our cockatoo on the roof of our car was very different to hers.
To this day, my sisters and I often wonder what people around us must have thought. There we were, a family of five in an old ford falcon, which my dad had proudly yet terribly painted himself, driving across Melbourne with a cockatoo in a huge ‘DIY-welded’ cage on the roof. I mean, you could have written a fictional children’s story about it but in reality we were there, in it, for real. What were people thinking? What judgements were they making about us? Cruelty to animals, that poor cockatoo, those poor children, if that’s how they treat the cockatoo how do they treat their children. Continental Europeans! Barbarians!
Imagine if it happened now, in this current fear driven, Instagram life of ours. There would have been snapshots of us posted on social media, people would have shared their perception and judgement based only on what they saw with their eyes, without knowledge of the full story, without feeling our pain of having to say good-bye to our pet and without understanding our lack of knowing that we had other options. Our family could have even featured on the TV news and been shamed forever as migrants who had no respect for the law and values of the country that had so kindly given them a chance for a better life. Surely the whole story would have surfaced eventually but by then, the damage would have already been done.
As scary as my ‘Continental European’ dad looked, he was just a gentle man, full of unconditional love for our pet cockatoo, protecting his children from the potential trauma of losing their pet in a violent and drunken rage of unjustified anger towards a helpless living thing. In my child mind, my dad was a hero and we were on an animal rescue mission to save our pet’s life. It just looked different to an ordinary animal rescue mission. Driving him across Melbourne on the roof of our car was the only way we could.
On the other hand, if one of the judging onlookers was brave enough to just ask what was happening, to clarify their perception of the situation, my dad could have learned that in Australia there is such a thing as the RSPCA and we could have called them for some help. Our cockatoo would not have had to live in exile until our drunken neighbour moved out of his flat and out of our lives.
What if we were to replace judgement-driven perception with these three things;
- If it is something perceived as offensive, dangerous, cruel, unfair, racist, sexist or harmful then stand up to it, take action or report it.
- Figure out a way to help.
- Close your eyes, take a deep breath in and as you breathe out, lovingly send energetic compassion towards the person/situation trusting they are acting from a place that is obviously different to yours.
I saw option two executed perfectly a few years ago at a school assembly. A young mother was in the audience waiting for her daughter to receive an award, clearly wanting to be present for the special moment. The mother also had a toddler and a baby in a pram, her eyes looked like they were about to pop out of her head, her hair was a mess and she looked like she hadn’t slept in days. The toddler was screaming, the baby started crying and the whole situation went from bad to worse in seconds. Most people around started looking at the mother in a way that says; get your kids under control lady! She knew all eyes were on her and the harder she tried to control the situation, the worse it got. “Why wouldn’t you just take your screaming baby outside?” I heard a parent say to another parent. Yes that would be logical but the mother knew she had an excited 6 year old who would soon be standing on a stage, receiving an award and no doubt looking for her mother’s face in the audience. As the minutes passed, the baby and toddler became so loud that you could barely hear the principal speak. The mother’s face had turned bright red and she had tears in her eyes, yet people continued to stare at her.
I’m sure that there were people in the room who were not judging her because I know that I wasn’t but like many, I just didn’t have a clue about what to do. Then, someone showed us what to do and I will never forget that moment. One of the teachers went over to the mother, distracted the toddler with a funny face and then offered to hold the baby. It worked, the toddler loved the attention and the baby who was clearly feeling overwhelmed by the noise and energy in the room was soothed by the gentleness of human contact. Someone was brave enough to take action and it worked. Not only did the action help the mother, toddler and baby and save the whole assembly, it also showed the rest of us how to help instead of judge.
I used to think that we become more compassionate as we get older because we have experienced more of life’s ups and downs. I’m not sure if that is true. Through observing children I have realised that they come into the world without judging others and they are always ready to help. I think we un-learn this natural reaction towards helping others because our perception becomes influenced by judgement. Adults apply compassion based on their own perception and often after they have assessed or judged the worthiness, sometimes even benefits. A child’s perception is based on their senses, feelings, imagination and curiosity. That’s why they are able to show compassion without judgement or influences from negative life experience. They apply their compassion to the current situation rather than bringing up the past. This is what makes children so forgiving. They do not perceive someone as horrible forever based on one event.
We should try to mix up our own habits of perception every now and again. Not only because it will help us show more forgiveness and compassion to ourselves and to others, but it will also help us become creative again.
I wonder what else may be hiding in that hat?
Dear Adult, JTLYK about Perception,
I see, I hear, I feel, I touch and I smell in order to understand the world around me. This is how I first perceive things. I use my senses, my imagination and curiosity to make sense of my world. Later, when I am able to talk, I ask questions to help me form a deeper understanding of what I see, hear, feel, touch and smell. As a child, my senses are very important in helping me form ideas and perceptions.
My senses are also linked to my intuition. I can feel safe without having to know why. I can hear sounds that make me happy without really needing any logical reason and on the other hand I can feel afraid or sad without being able to explain it.
Adult perception is based more on what you see with your eyes. A child’s perception is based more on how we feel and what we see in our mind’s eye. Our imagination. For example, an adult can look at a stick forever and all they will ever see is a stick, but a child can see so many things in a stick.
Children are better problem solvers because we use our imagination to think of things that do not exist. A solution is something that does not exist until you make it exist. You make it exist by thinking of an idea and then testing the idea to see if it works. If the idea does not work, usually it doesn’t, you have to think of another idea and sometimes another and another. You can see why being creative and having a good imagination is very important. An adult can look at a problem for a very long time and only ever see a problem, but a child would use their imagination to create a solution.
A solution cannot exist when a problem is perceived as a problem in the first place. Children do not have problems until they learn about problems from adults. Very young children such as toddlers know that a problem is only a challenge and a challenge is just something that you cannot do based on your perception of the situation in the present moment. The situation is not fixed, it is temporary yet timeless because young children have no concept of time. We don’t care about how long the perceived problem will last because our focus is to overcome it or simply move on to something else if we lose interest. By moving on and letting go of fixed perception, the problem often fixes itself in ways we couldn’t think of.
It is a real shame that adults have invented the perception that moving on and letting go is ‘giving up!’ Letting go is actually the solution to many of your problems.
Giving up is actually saying; “I cannot do anything about it, I’m helpless”. Whereas letting go and moving on is taking action.
Problem solvers will be the entrepreneurs of the future because the world has a lot of problems (fixed perceptions). However, if the adult’s perception of problems rubs off too much onto the children then the problems will continue.
Please help our perception stay true to our senses, our feelings, our intuition and imagination. Please show us how to separate perception from judgement so that our compassion for others is not compromised and so that we can work in collaboration with others NOT in competition.
We need to be nurtured in a way that shows us how we perceive the world forms a starting point for everything we do or don’t do. If we learn to perceive problems as problems and feel helpless to fix them, then this will form the basis for a ‘nothing I can do about it, poor me, victim-like inner dialogue’. On the other hand, if we learn to perceive problems as opportunities and have the creativity and skills to find solutions, then we will be able to help ourselves, help others and create jobs and wealth for ALL of us, not just some of us.
If we perceive the world as a safe place where we belong and feel free to apply our pure and innate desire to help others, use our individual talents and abilities and are driven by our interests and passion, then we will experience the kind of success unknown to adults in this present world and time we live in. We will be able to solve problems and make positive contributions to our community, local, global and universal. On the other hand, if we perceive the world as a place that only values certain types of skills and only cares about some people and that we are all in competition with each other, then we will continue to do things that benefit ‘me and only me’, my CV, my bank balance, my ego, my appearance and my likes on social media.
Just in case you missed the message in this story;
The purer our perception, the greater clarity we will have in our ability to take action.
Let us see the world from our perspective of LOVE, compassion, excitement, hope, beauty, kindness, community, forgiveness, simplicity, equality, sustainability and creativity amongst other wonderful and positive qualities that can be successfully found in children if you were not so busy drilling for the ‘commodities’ on your list!
The concept of ‘drilling for commodities in children is not an original idea by the author Biljana Stavreski. This idea comes from the famous TED Talk, by Sir Ken Roberston, “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” During the talk, Sir Ken Robertson makes reference to strip-mining in the following way.
“Our education system has mined our minds in the way that we strip-mine the earth: for a particular commodity. And for the future, it won’t serve us. We have to rethink the fundamental principles on which we’re educating our children.” Sir Ken Roberston TED Talk (February 2006)