Concrete operations thinking or processing develops gradually from preschool ages through early elementary school- primarily from 7-11 years old (Learning-Theories, 2010). With consistent feedback and consistent experience with the world and people, the child develops a good sense of how things and people work in the world. In the transition to and during this stage, children consistently ask for a concrete rule or judgment—"Is it ok? What do I do? What do you want? What am I supposed to do? Is this right or wrong? Is he a good guy or a bad guy?" It's a natural process to respond to the uncertainty and unpredictability of the pre-operational stage by seeking clear definitive non-ambiguous rules on how to things work and how to act. Seeking order and predictability, process answers such as "It depends…" or "Figure it out yourself" are experienced as vague. They are not sufficiently concrete for young children. Thus conceptual responses therefore create ambiguity and perpetuate anxiety. Such answers are more appropriate and can be better handled in the next stage of processing of formal operations. Adult clients and couples often ask, "Is this ok? What do I do?" as well. Classic open-ended therapist-talk such as "It depends… What do you think?" often will frustrate them. This interaction may be normal and part of the therapeutic process to help individuals and couples get to own their own processes and lives. However if clients persist in the "tell me what to do" mode, it may be indicative of them being stuck in concrete operations… or worse yet, stuck in pre-operational magical thinking. The therapist's insistence in staying in a facilitative processing mode will frustrate such clients. The frustration may become an opportunity for a positive and necessary therapeutic experience for the clients to be guided through.
Children and individuals stuck in this mode would have had limited and/or unsuccessful experiences moving into the abstract thinking of formal operations. Often, when they fail when asked or required to infer or intuit rules or interpret situations and determine appropriate responses as children. They had not only been unsuccessful, but were sometimes severely punished. If so treated, they would tend to stay conservative and seek definite concrete rules or judgments from someone in authority and power. Initially, this is the parent, next a teacher perhaps, a partner, and the therapist in therapy. Submitting to an authority is experienced as much safer than risking higher functioning that might result in a poor choice. Many societies also severely punish individuals for making incorrect choices. In the extreme, this can lead to rigid thinking with little or no nuance or flexibility that would be more adaptive. Individuals may become ever more anxious and even paralyzed as they try to anticipate and be prepared for every situation. In such situations, individuals seek definitive instructions about even how to think. "The preacher/minister/priest/mufti/sage said to..." "Mommy told me it was ok!" "That's what Daddy said!" The therapist may hear members of a couple report that one or the other invoked the authority of the therapist their home disputes as well! "Well, our therapist said I should…!"