Don’t Write Like a Child, For Mercy’s Sake

I have a bone to pick with all you writers who are out there giving advice about writing like a child. Have any of you ever actually met any children? Do you have kids? Have you studied the way their minds work? Because the trite, surface-level advice that keeps popping up in the blogs I read is making me twitch.

Cultivate your inner innocence. Wonder at the world. Think about things with fresh eyes. Be honest. Stop editing yourself. Listen to the way kids talk. Sure, do all that…if you want your kids to sound like every other kid produced by working the problem from the wrong end.

If you want to grow up and write realistic kids, read about developmental psychology. Choose a mental age for your character (doesn’t have to match their physical age–conflict for kids can often stem from being either too precocious or a bit slow for their age), study up on what kids’ brains are doing at that age, and try to adopt those specific mental frameworks as you think about how your kids will address the challenges you’ve laid out for them.

Kids are wondrous strange creatures, it’s true, but it’s not because they’re magical. It’s because they don’t know anything yet and often don’t have the resources to learn things efficiently on their own. When you’re pre-literate, you can’t pop on the internet to google “how to tie shoelaces,” for example. You have to rely on other people, but even posing questions is a challenge because you don’t have the vocabulary to be specific or standard in your inquiries. If you want to immerse yourself in what it’s like to be a kid, find someone to teach you something completely new, preferably something with a highly technical use of vocabulary that you don’t know.

And as for the “kids are honest,” piece…that’s true. But it’s not a kind or morally-sainted honesty. Kids have an “I have underdeveloped social filters” honesty and it’s as often cruel as it is unintentionally sage or touching. If you want to get it right, try to image how you would respond to the situation, person, environment, etc. if you were the most socially inept person on earth and then tone it down as befits the mental age of your kid.

In general, I’m convinced that thinking about taking a child’s POV from a “writing like a kid” angle is not going to get you very far. I’m not saying you shouldn’t take a kid’s POV. But kids are people. They’re people with specific ranges of mental and physical challenges that many adults don’t deal with on a daily basis, but they’re still people. If you lose sight of that fact, your writing will show it, and probably not for the better.

 

  • Samantha

    I found this pretty insightful. Writing isn’t just magical thoughts that flow onto a page. It requires research and effort. Knowing this kind of thing would certainly get you more into the head of your character so you could create him to be life-like. Neato.