Children and the Nature of Time

Here is another way of looking at the difference between the attention span of a young child and that of an adult. It has to do with the nature of time.

Aristotle's definition of "time" is "the measure of motion according to the before and after." What this means is that "time" is a way of describing change (not something that "exists" in its own right). So time does not exist outside the mind. Changes happen, but they don't measure themselves, and time is just a way of measuring changes. It's the human mind's way of grasping and understanding change. In philosophical jargon, it's a "mental abstraction with a basis in reality." That means that time doesn't exist in the real world but only in the mind, but: the changes that time measures are real.

This idea that time doesn't exist may sound rather radical, especially if you're used to thinking in terms of relativity or time as a dimension. But this is an old definition of time, which is still held today by many philosophers, especially among Thomistic philosophers.

There is some practical value to this understanding of time. It means that the expression "Time flies when you're having fun" can actually be quite accurate. If time only exists in your mind, then it really can go "faster" or "slower" depending on the circumstances! The changes going on around you, even within yourself, as still happening at the same speed, but time, the mind's perception of changes, can go faster or slower. It also explains why animals have no perception of time: if you leave a dog in a kennel for a day or for a year, the dog won't be able to tell the difference. Time is a concept developed by the human mind.

Now, apply this concept of "time" to a child's attention span.

What you find is that time goes faster for a child than it does for an adult. Then, it makes perfect sense that a child's attention span seems shorter than an adult's. In fact, the child is able to spend the same amount of "time", relatively speaking, as an adult, on tasks. It's just that time is going by faster for a child than it is for an adult. So the same amount of "time" for the child to spend is over faster than it is for an adult.

When I was a child, it took forever for Christmas to come. The older I get, the quicker each successive Christmas comes. Has anyone else ever noticed this? It's not because of anticipation or excitement; it's because time slows down as you get older, so there is less time between any two dates the older one gets. That's what makes it seem to come faster and faster - because it really is coming faster, according to time in your mind.

Apply this to car rides. Isn't it true that a long car ride seems much longer to a child than to an adult? Try it out: if you used to take a long ride somewhere, on vacation perhaps, when you were little, try taking the same trip as an adult, and see if it takes the same amount of time. It seems shorter, because it is really taking less time, because time for you is moving more slowly as you get older.

Did movies seem a lot longer when you were little than they do now? It's the same phenomenon again: time moves slower as you get older, so there is less time in 1 or 2 hours now than there was for you when you were younger.

Consider this concept of time when dealing with children. Are children more impatient than adults? Sometimes it seems that way. But perhaps it is more often simply that waiting takes more time for a child than the same amount of waiting does for an adult.

If you're with kids on a long trip, keep in mind that a child is spending as much of his time sitting in the car for an hour as an adult would spend sitting in a car for an entire day. How do you feel after spending 12 or 18 hours riding? Like a child does after riding for an hour or two? This is easily explained by the concept of time as being something that only exists in the mind.

What about a child who is supposed to be hyperactive? Perhaps he is behaving perfectly normally within his time frame, which is moving faster than time is moving for the adults around him. It may be that time simply goes faster for some children than it for others.

This accelerated time is actually beneficial for children. It enables children to learn faster, because it gives them more time to learn things. This can explain why children are able to learn a new language quicker than an adult. If a child is exposed to a language for a week or a month, he is spending the same amount of his time in it as an adult would in many months or years. The more time one is exposed to another language, the more it is learned, and time goes faster for a child so he is spending more time with the language than an adult would be spending. The same goes for learning music or other skills: a child spends as much time practicing for an hour as an adult would if he spent all day doing nothing but practicing!

The problem with accelerated time is when adults are only willing to accept their own rate of time, and accuse children of being hyperactive or of having a low attention span --- when in fact they are perfectly normal and have the same attention span, according to the speed at which their time is moving.

by Rick Kephart

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