Concrete Thinking Kids Dealing with Abstract Concepts
Love and marriage…love and marriage….go together like a horse and carriage…this I tell you brother…you can’t have one without the other. — Frank Sinatra
Picture this. Night time at the Smith home. Their 3-year-old son doesn’t want to go to bed. He has told his parents that as long as he stays out of his bedroom then that means it is not bedtime.
This is concrete thinking at work. Concrete thinking is thinking about facts and objects that are tangible and in the present moment. Concrete thinking is literal thinking. Contrast that with abstract thinking which is figurative and not about the present moment. Abstract thinkers can deal in analogies and relationships.
Children are concrete thinkers and think about things in literal ways for a number of years. As they age, their ability to think abstractly improves. This transitional process typically starts to happen through the later elementary school years and continues into adulthood. So, as it was in the example above of the Smith family son, bedrooms are where you sleep. If you don’t go into your bedroom then you don’t have to sleep.
Marrying someone is a concrete thing. Loving someone, on the other hand, is quite a bit more abstract. As the Sinatra song would suggest, you can’t have one without the other. It is a simple connection for a child to make — if you are in love you get married; if you are married, you must be in love. Kids can easily carry on a conversation with their parents about getting married one day and loving someone for life. However, that doesn’t mean in the slightest that they fully understand what they’re talking about.
Winning and losing are concrete concepts too. However, understanding what winning or losing means to one’s overall development is far more abstract. Unfortunately, most children make a very tenuous connection — winning means I must be good, losing means I must not be so good. Of course we know it’s not that simple. Yet we set up most organized youth sport to focus completely on the product (i.e., the outcome of the contest) and not the process (i.e., the performance and/or the growth). We, the adults, only help to reinforce the notions of the literal thinking child.
Like I’ve touched on here, both long-term participation in sport and mastery of a sport involves early doses of extrinsic motivation followed by large doses of intrinsic motivation in the long run. True, this reinforces the point that young children are concrete thinkers and therefore need tangible rewards to help with their motivation to continue. Learning to appreciate hard work or sacrifices made to excel requires the ability to think about complex relationships (i.e., if I make commitment ‘x’ now, I will get outcome ‘y’ in the long-term). So yes, winning can be a reward that leads a person to longer term participation driven by more intrinsic desires but it shouldn’t be the only tangible trinket that we use for reinforcement.
Trying to win and trying to perform well are two concepts that are easy enough for adults to link together but very hard for children to actually understand. It takes time. You can’t have love without marriage? Maybe. But you can definitely have a good performance without winning.
At Eliot River, coaches are asked to strive to win every game while ensuring they help players grow in all four corners of development (i.e., technical-tactical, physical, cognitive and social-emotional). And if there is ever a conflict between the two such that both winning and developing cannot be accomplished at the same time, then development always comes first.
This is easier said than done. Messages of competition and winning are everywhere. It can be confusing for young players. We are explicitly saying focus on your performance and yet much of their surrounding environment implicitly tells them that they need to win in order to be successful. Kids might not know what the words empty rhetoric refers to but they definitely know what it looks and feels like. If we want children and youth to buy into a different message then we all need to be saying the same things, on the soccer field, at other sport venues and, yes, even about sacred topics like grades in school. The message that performance and growth matters more than outcome has to be across the board.