Writing Children Right

One thing I've noticed is that a lot of writers - both amateur and professional - seem to have no idea how children actually behave. Many child characters I've read don't act anything like real children.

In fact, I can't help but wonder if many members of the present generation of adults sprang fully-formed as teens or young adults, because they seem to have no idea how children actually behave despite having allegedly being children themselves. Here are some of the most common mistakes:

1. Children who are completely fearless in their ignorance and innocence, blissfully frolicking into situations where adults would wet their pants in terror. This is hogwash. Children are just as fearful as adults, if not moreso because they haven't learned that not everything that makes a loud or strange noise or looks like it crawled out of Uncanny Valley won't hurt them. Although children are more impulsive than adults and can indeed ignorantly put themselves into danger, they do have survival instincts and tend to shy away from dark creepy places, things that make loud or strange noises, things that act erratic and unpredictable, and residents of Uncanny Valley.

2. Children who giggle for no discernible reason. The only way a child would giggle as much as some people think they do is if they were high. Now, watch this video and pay attention. The two children giggle a lot while playing on a slide, but it's very clear why they're giggling: the toddler falls down, the baby finds it humorous and laughs, and the toddler laughs because the baby laughs. Compare with this video. The children playing on the slide are not interacting with each other very much, and are much quieter.

Another mistake is having children giggle when other other noises would be more appropriate. In fact, children make a variety of noises: they shout, shriek, chatter, and belly laugh. In this video, a toddler playing with his parents doesn't giggle much, but mostly chatters and shrieks a bit.

3. Children with utterly bizarre vocabularies. While it's true that children have smaller vocabularies than adults, and their vocabularies usually comprise of smaller words, they generally speak with the same vocabulary as those around them. Even two-year-olds are fully capable of having conversations using the same words, idioms, and concepts their parents use on a day-to-day basis.

4. Children whose perspectives are remarkably unchildish. I've seen several instances where someone wrote a child who refers to someone else as "the nice man" or "the nice lady." The trouble with the word "nice" is that it's a fairly abstract concept; real children prefer concrete ones - EG, "the man who helped me find my shoe" or "the lady who gave me ice cream." Also, if a child characterizes someone as "nice," it implies that they are aware that many people are not nice. A young child who knows that many people aren't nice at all probably wouldn't want to take their chances with a complete stranger - adults are HUGE and much stronger than the child, and therefore highly risky to deal with.

5. Children who are "innocent" in all the wrong ways. Examples are many:

A child is most probably not going to ask "Mommy, why are your eyes wet?" when they see their mother crying. They've cried themselves since the day they were born; they know full well that tears mean distress. They might be confused the first time they encounter someone crying tears of happiness, since a person is showing all the signs of distress and yet there's clearly nothing to be distressed about.

Likewise, a child is not going to see an adult in pain and ask, "Daddy, why are you acting funny?" Aside from the fact that children are freaked out by things that start acting in strange and erratic ways (ESPECIALLY things they've generally come to trust as safe), even the youngest child knows pain and how people act when they're in it - they have, after all, been in pain themselves.

Another case of this is children being completely unfrightened by severe injury or deformity because of their innocence. Just being around other people gives the child a general template of what a healthy or well-formed person should look like. A child's survival instincts will usually steer them away from anyone who does not fit the template. These instincts are so powerful that some small children are terrified by even small deviances from the template - some have been known to cry in terror when someone puts on a hat or a pair of glasses.

Sometimes a child will be portrayed as intelligent enough to pull off a relatively sophisticated con or prank, yet can't figure out why their victim would be angry or upset about it. To pull off a con of any kind requires you to have a relatively good comprehension of human behavior. Furthermore, the whole point of a con (eg, tricking little Sally into turning loose of her dolly) is getting someone to do something they would never do under other circumstances.

As a general rule, children:

Some nonsensical child-related tropes I'd like to see go away:

1. Children see things like monsters, fairies, or the paranormal because they haven't yet learned what's "real" and what isn't. I thought all kinds of things were real when I saw a child, and you know what I saw? Virtually bupkiss. As much as I believed in fairies and wanted to see one very badly, it never happened.

2. Children suppress memories of what they've seen when they learn they aren't "real." When I was a kid, I saw UFOs. As an adult, I came to the conclusion that pop alien lore was stuff cooked up in the minds of the bored, the mentally ill, and the greedy. Yet, I still remember my experience.

3. Children as magical founts of wisdom and sweetness. I suspect this one comes from vague memories of our own childhoods, when we thought we had the perfect answers for problems adults just couldn't seem to sort out. The problem? Children tend to be on the low end of the Dunning-Kruger scale. Or it could come from our own wishful thinking - children give simplistic answers, and we'd all like for there to be simple solutions to everything. Or, this could come from the myth that innocence = goodness. Of course, the same child who thinks that it would be wonderful if everyone just stopped fighting those silly wars and got along is probably going to smack their sibling the next day to retrieve a "stolen" toy.

I've seen adults who give the same types of "solutions" for problems that children give. However, the answers come from a place of ignorance. They are horribly simplistic and don't actually work in the real world. The person mistakenly assumes that their solution is so self-evident that it should be common sense to everyone that it's what we have to do to save the world. These are the type of people who are convinced tht world peace would happen if we all just set aside our differences... and converted to their religion or ideology. They have a difficult time grasping why people wouldn't want to convert, because their beliefs seem so self-evidently right. So they start making up ridiculous explanations - like that people of other religions or ideologies are actually the literal Forces of Evil and they're out to destroy Good - IE, their side.

Cue the witch hunts.

In closing, if you really have no idea how to write children, try at least one of the following:

1. Observe children in their natural habitats until you can get a bead on how they behave. YouTube is full of videos if you can't find ones in real life.
2. Ask people who regularly care for children how actual children behave.
3. Try to remember what you were like as a child, and how you thought/felt about things.

Also, check out:

Wonder-Baby Syndrome - Or, How To Make Your Audience Hate Your Character's Crotchfruit
Notes & Musings On Writing Cute Characters
Things Writers Need To Know About Birth & Babies
Tips To Create & Write Better Parents & Parental Figures
Describing Your Character: Tips & Advice
On Writing Comedy & Comic Relief

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