The Kids are All Right: Respect for Children

I don’t have children.  I never will.  In spite of that, I feel incredibly invested in the education and the bringing up of children.  If it was done “right” – whatever that may mean- I think the world would be a better place.  It is this notion of “right” that is so troubling, especially in our individualistic culture, where in many quarters  it is deemed “right” in thinking that to “spare the rod is to spoil the child.”  So I read AlterNet’s article by Paul L. Thomas “Why are Americans So Inclined to Disrespect Children?” with great interest (thanks for posting this, Marah!).

children running

Think about being on a plane with a crying baby.  What are people’s reactions?  In my experience, they act badly.  They are impatient, bothered, and rude.  Now, it may be a good evolutionary response to be troubled by a baby crying, but these days people are not gracious about it.

I remember being on an airplane with a mother and her two young children.  She took out a story book and began reading to them.  Then I heard a businessman in front of her turn to his businessman neighbor and say snidely, “I guess it’s story time now.”

For the most part, we don’t react to children in this culture favorably, and that is part of Thomas’ argument:  “A child is not a small adult, not a blank slate to be filled with our ‘adult weariness’ or a broken human being that must be repaired.  It is also true that children are not angels; they are not pure creatures suited to be set free to find the world on their own.  Seeing children through deficit or ideal lenses does not serve them – or anyone – well.”

baby crying

Too often we think of children as “spoiled brats”.  Even if parents are too lenient with their children, that, too, is a way of disrespecting them.  Our culture is “schizophrenic” about children, Thomas writes.  We worship young adulthood, but hate children.  He says this is compounded by racism and classism that is rife in our culture.  He points to study, where participants were asked to identify the age of a young boy who committed a felony.  Participants “routinely overestimated the age of black children far more than they did white kids” and so did police.  Thomas writes, “The correlation between dehumanization and use of force becomes more significant when you consider that black boys are routinely estimated to be older than they are.”  The “innocence of children” then is never applied to these black kids – the worst is immediately assumed.

Thomas quotes the writer Barbara Kingsolver and a trip she took with her daughter to Spain.  She says, astonished, “People here like kids.”  She says that everyone on the street stops to talk to her young daughter.  When her daughter has a melt down in a restaurant, the waiters bring her little treats and presents, and nearby diners “look on with that sweet, wistful gleam of eye that before now I have only seen aimed at the dessert tray.  Children are the meringues and eclairs of this culture.”

Why are children here viewed as a problem to be solved?  Why don’t we have more patience?  More love?

I’m going to tell you two stories from my own childhood.  They are meant to be funny, in a kind of horrific way, and to be examples of what I mean when I say children are not respected.

When I was in middle school, home economics was still a requirement.  My peers and I suffered through “Mrs. Jones” class.  Mrs. Jones was a heavy, decorated woman who wore sweeping skirts, lots of bangles, and stiletto heels.  She was also obsessed with tapeworms.  We had a whole unit on them, when she would gleefully tell us how tapeworms would climb out of a baby’s mouth while it slept, roam around, and then climb back in.  She said you could lure tapeworms out by tying a piece of meat to a string, and then dangle the string over someone’s mouth.  Or, you could make a little cut in your wrist, and a tapeworm would make its way through your body and out the slit you created.  Needless to say, Mrs. Jones was crazy.

Mrs. Jones would give you extra credit if you did her laundry, cleaned her house and pool.  I recently learned that when she switched schools, she would tape herself on a VCR for the first period, and then play back the tape for the remainder of the day while she did things like paint her toenails.

But perhaps the most egregious thing about Mrs. Jones was her obvious spite.  Like I said, she was a heavy woman, and yet she made me, a fat kid, go up to the board during our “health” unit, and do a calculation on how much I weighed now, and how much I weight I should lose.  Much to my embarrassment, I did it.  I have often wondered why I didn’t tell her to go fuck herself, but I was a timid child and not one to defend myself.

crazy teacher

This is something you don’t do to kids.  You don’t shame them in front of the whole class, or make them do very personal things for all to see.

Another example:  I was twelve or thirteen when a family friend told me my head was too big for my body.  What kind of adult tells a teenager that their head is too big for their body, I ask you?  When I was remembering this out load recently, and joking that this woman would be pleased that I’ve kind of grown into my head, my brother merely said, “Oh Molly, you’re too hard on yourself.”  He missed the point completely.  Why didn’t he exclaim in horror that this woman said that to me?  Perhaps it’s because it is easy to be horrible to children.  Perhaps because we expect our childhoods to be full of awfulness.

I don’t believe this is the way it should be.  We can change.  We can be more careful.  Because children are so young, their memories are long.  Not only that, we remember things from our childhood probably more vividly than we do things from yesterday.  We need to be careful in how we treat people, but most especially children.  There’s a meme going around on Facebook from Maya Angelou that I quite like:  “People won’t remember what you said or what you did, but they will remember how you made them feel.”  Truth.