Cognitive development and your characters

I was so close to getting it for so long, but because of my emotional attachment to the original generation of my Atlantic City characters being born 1929–31, I engaged in powerful cognitive dissonance to justify keeping their age as-is. After becoming so deeply embedded into the very fabric of this world I crafted across so many books and so many decades, it feels impossible to all of a sudden change.

As I’ve admitted many times, the way I wrote both child and adult characters as a teen was laughably off the mark. The kids all acted like junior sages, spoke in full sentences under a year old, and had serious conversations about literature and politics before kindergarten. The adults meanwhile acted like overgrown 13-year-olds.

I had it arse-backwards with the original generation. Their wild years are 10–14, and then once high school starts, they just settle down and became boringly domestic, with a bunch of cliché, derivative, insipid, unoriginal, cookie-cutter storylines and situations you could find in any teen soap (print or film).

In the second book of the permanently-shelved first series, they have some stupid party in early 1944 to celebrate their “new and improved selves.” Hostess Violet spews some really stupid lines, like “We’re all being much nicer to Sam” (whom I later recast as a genuine antagonist, not a sweet, innocent victim of senseless bullying), “Even Kit is dressing like a lady” (when that’s the last thing she wants to be seen as, even as an older woman!), and “Look at us. We’re children of the Forties!”

Said no real teen of the Forties, EVER! Normal people don’t go around hyper-conscious of living through a given decade. At most, they might say to an older person who seems out of step with the times, “This is 1940, not 1040.”

Even the most mature, academically gifted, intellectually advanced, physically developed 8-year-old, 10-year-old, or 12-year-old is still a child, and it’s doubtful all four of those elements will simultaneously exist. This is a major reason I’m so opposed to radical acceleration (skipping several grades at a time), even for the most brilliant kids. Their unusually precocious academic development doesn’t cancel out their cognitive development and make them mini-adults.

One of the blessings of youth is that we never realize how young, immature, and inexperienced we are at the time. Only when we look back with adult hindsight do we realize in shock just how little we really knew, how we were nowhere close to full maturity.

Cognitive development is a long, slow process. Each new stage happens gradually instead of coming full-blown upon milestone birthdays. This is why even fairly small age differences feel so magnified when we’re young. Four years might as well be forty when you’re a kid.

I mentally SORASed my Atlantic City characters, and kept them mentally SORASed, because I was academically advanced and an early bloomer myself, with age-atypical interests, and didn’t associate much with peers outside of school. I also copied what I saw in many MG books of the era, where preteens were often depicted as a fair bit older.

Just compare any MG book of today with one published in the Seventies, Eighties, or early Nineties, and you’ll see exactly what I mean. But even then, that wasn’t entirely realistic.

Even before helicopter parents and freaking content warnings on old Sesame Street episodes where kids walk around the neighborhood and play without constant parental supervision, and even in the case of parentified children compelled to step into adult responsibilities and roles at very young ages, the preteen brain is nowhere near finished developing.

Kids are just starting to come into their own interests and beliefs, independent of what they’ve been encouraged in by their families and teachers. While I was quite annoyed at the “This is how young the Class of 1998 is!” list for claiming we only had a memory of one president, it’s fair to say we were only politically knowledgable about one.

I knew Reagan and Bush, Sr., were in office, could easily recognize their photos, and vaguely knew my parents didn’t like them, but couldn’t have told you jack about their politics at the time. I only began developing my political views around the ’92 election. Fine-honing my beliefs and being able to express them in my own language was a process which took years.

I didn’t even know how old Reagan was, and was shocked to learn he dyed his hair! Zero chance any real child holds complex, mature political opinions or can express one’s budding views in more than basic language.

Kids tend to read up, which accounts for so many of the MG books of my generation featuring characters of about 11–16 yet having a rather simplistic writing style. Younger kids want to read about sophisticated, mature older kids, who must be seriously dating and doing daring older kid stuff already. Some of them might even be having sex and going to unchaperoned parties!

But just think about the kids of your characters’ ages you know, or what they were like at those ages. Were any of them in serious relationships in fifth grade, discussing 19th century political theorists and upcoming presidential elections in preschool, sporting size C breasts at not yet eight years old, well-versed in Russian literature at five, interested in anything sexual at ten?

I wasn’t even aware of some of the things my characters are so passionate about (e.g., Gayle and Eastern wisdom, Cinni and political philosophies) until I was in my teens, yet I depicted them as super into this stuff in freaking elementary school?!

Understanding is much different from knowledge. E.g., I recognize Thai and Korean letters, but I don’t understand how to read them. I’ve a passing knowledge of Sikhism and Zoroastrianism, but I haven’t nearly as much understanding as I have about Hinduism or Judaism.

knew kids under thirteen look, act, think, and talk a certain way, but for the longest time, I didn’t understand what that actually meant in relation to my own characters. Because my Atlantic City books are intended as a mix of hist-fic, spoof, satire, and deliberately over the top humour, I never saw any reason to question why these very young characters are nothing like the age-realistic kids in my other books.

Even the parentified children in Little Ragdoll aren’t like that, not even intellectually gifted ones like Emeline and Girl/Deirdre. Super-smart kids with age-atypical interests are still kids where it really matters.

The prefrontal cortex doesn’t finish developing till age 25. If grown adults don’t have complete brain maturity yet, why would you depict mere children as though they’re just slightly more immature versions of adults?

Even satire and deliberately over the top humour can’t cancel out normal cognitive development. You always want your story to be plausible, esp. when it’s an otherwise real-world setting.

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