Tattoos, association, and interpreting the world

Recently, my friend Brad shared this story with me about his four-year-old son, Eric, which occurred as they were driving:
Eric: Daddy, what is that?
Brad: That is a prison. Do you know what a prison is?
Eric: No. What is it?
Brad: Well, a prison is where they put bad people. Do you know what a bad person is?
Eric: Yes, people with tattoos.
This is a good illustration of how young children (and you and me) make sense of a complex world. Our minds make associations so that we can figure out how the world works.
“We have the tendency to make assumptions about everything.
The problem with assumptions is that we believe they are the truth.”
—Don Miguel Ruiz, The Four Agreements
The beautiful thing about young children is that they share their thoughts so easily. And when they do, we can help them revise or refine their thinking about how the world works.
Here’s how rest of the conversation went between Brad and his son:
Brad: So, what makes you think that bad people have tattoos?
Eric:  Pirates are bad people, and they all have tattoos!
Brad: That makes sense. Are there any good pirates?
Eric: Yes, but I like the bad ones. They’re scary!
Brad: How about other people—do you know any good people who have tattoos?
Eric: Yes. Auntie Alice has a butterfly tattoo.
If you listen, you’ll begin to hear limiting thoughts your children have about the world. Then when you hear them, you can begin to explore these interpretations—where they came from, what they mean to your kids, and how you can help them make different, expanded interpretations.
The association between tattoos and bad people would most likely have sorted itself out over time because there are lots of wonderful people with tattoos. But there are other associations your children make about life and themselves that might not sort out well unless you explore them with your children.
   I’m not smart.
   Boys are stronger than girls.
   Big boys don’t cry.
   Reading isn’t fun.
   I’m not good at….
So listen, then look for ways to explore—not correct—the interpretation or association you hear.
“The mind associates things and has them be equivalent when they are not. Associating hides differences and therefore power. It limits us to a past-based world rather than a future exploration…. No real thinking occurs when you are associating.”     —Robert Sheckley, Mindswap