By Liftarn via Wikimedia Commons

The last two times I’ve flown, the flight was delayed, something that occurs quite often. What’s unusual about the story is that the source of the delay on two different carriers turned out to be the same: children under the age of four who were not “independent” enough.  

The airlines had assigned the parents and children seats in different rows, and none of the passengers seated around the families agreed to give up a seat so the family could sit together. The flight attendants were not particularly adept at negotiation, causing a delay of 15 minutes in the case of one flight and 45 minutes in the other.

What surprised me most about these situations was a comment I overheard: “It’s the girl’s fault for not wanting to sit by herself during the flight.” I was shocked that an adult would consider it “normal” for a four-year-old to travel for three hours seated between two strangers, 10 rows away from her mother. I looked at this passenger and tried to imagine whether he had children. After my initial reaction, I had several hours of travel to contemplate the situation, and I got off the plane thinking that I needed to understand where this expectation came from.

Coincidentally, a few days later, I was in a meeting with several child development experts, and the issue came up of how some educators criticize the inclusion of cultural values in the dimensions considered when assessing children’s development. I understand that this is a rather complex debate (which I don’t intend to summarize in this post); however, I do want to bring up an example that arose in the context of that conversation, because I immediately connected it with what I had observed on those flights and the topic of independence.

Several developmental assessment scales used with very young children include specific items that relate to independence. Examples of items that apply to children under age two include questions about whether they can put on their jacket or shirt by themselves, or if they can take off their shoes without help. These items are part of sub-scales that measure social development and the ability to adapt. The construction of these scales allows us to discern specific values related to being independent and to activities that children should be able to do by themselves at an early age as part of their social development.

Obviously, there’s a big difference between expecting a little boy to be able to take off his own shoes and wanting him to sit by himself, far from his parents, for an entire plane ride. But somehow these stories allowed me to imagine a little better the variety of expectations that people from different cultures have in terms of children and their level of independence.

For example, it may be that in one cultural environment, the time devoted to dressing/undressing the child is viewed as an opportunity for play, cuddles, and close interaction with parents, while, in another context, the task of getting dressed may be presented to the child as a challenge that he is expected to tackle by himself to show how “big” he is. It wouldn’t be surprising if the child in the second environment learned to dress himself before the child in the first environment.

I think this topic lends itself to some interesting reflections about our region, which is so rich and culturally diverse. Of course, I’m not suggesting that we need to reinvent the developmental assessment scales, but it never hurts to look at them with a critical eye and to carefully pilot them to ensure that they’re not only understandable but also relevant to the context in which they’ll be applied.

Share this post on Facebook or Twitter so that other parents and educators can reflect on their own expectations and demands as they relate to the independence of the children around them.

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  • Nicole West-Hayles

    Totally agree. Extremely important to remember when dealing with children with cognitive disabilities. They can learn to be socially independent even when other aspects of life seems complex. That is my focus now with my own child instead of the academics.

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