Sunday, February 6, 2011

Parental Myth #2

Children are people.

Perhaps you are non-plussed. This is an obvious statement, right? Not much to argue with. And where’s the myth? Everyone knows that children are people.

Except that they don’t. Many parents, in my experience, don’t actually treat children as people, and very few non-parents do. How do they treat them? Generally, as pets, projects, plants, or peeves.

Now, you may recall that I don’t even treat my pets like pets. But that doesn’t mean I don’t know how it works: you bring the thing home, you make sure it gets fed, you clean up after it, and, every now and again, you play with it. If it poops on the carpet, you smack its nose. If it jumps up on the guests, you scold it. Basic stuff. To many parents, this is how you should treat your pets. And small humans aren’t really that different from small dogs.

Alternatively, some parents take that cliché about achieving immortality through their children to new heights. They live vicariously through them, construct careful realities for them, attempt to mold them into exactly what they want them to be (or, occasionally, what they wish they themselves were). These are the parents who are constantly telling you how gifted their children are, and how much they will be achieving, and what wonderful schools they’ll be attending. When you hear such picture-perfect stories, you often wonder if there isn’t something seething below the surface. Often there is.

Now the main thing to remember about people who treat their children like pets or projects is that these are not bad parents. They’re still trying to do the best they can for their children. Of course, not all parents are good parents. Sometimes all a parent is prepared to do is feed and water—maybe they’ll talk to the things every now and again because some people claim that makes a difference. And there are, very occasionally, parents who are mainly just annoyed that they have to constantly deal with these needy little things, and that society frowns on putting them into a sack and tossing them into the river, ’cause, honestly, that would be much easier. Happily, that last one is rare.

Thus: pets, projects, plants, and peeves. But, rarely people. Think about it: Do you ignore other people? Lie to them? Pretend you’re listening just to get them to shut up? Demand that they do exactly as you say? Tell them that they may not speak unless spoken to? Limit their freedoms? Discount their opinions? Ignore their dreams and impose your own? Generally, you do not. And at least if you do, you know you’re being rude. But people do these things to children, every day, in vast quantities.

I wonder if in some cases people don’t deal with children because they don’t want to be reminded of their own childhoods. Maybe it was such a crappy time for them that they just don’t want to think about it. Although often I feel like most people treat childhood as some sort of bizarre fraternity hazing: I survived this awfulness, now it’s your turn!

Well, my goal was to take what I didn’t like about my own childhood and never do that to anyone else. Ever. My kids, other people’s kids, doesn’t matter. I don’t treat people in ways I wouldn’t want to be treated, and kids aren’t some sort of special exception to that rule.

Some people formulate this idea as “treat your children like adults.” Well, actually, most often you hear it expressed in the past tense: “my parents always treated me like an adult.” That makes it an interesting tidbit about the past, rather than a frightening precept for the future. Because anyone who has children, or deals with them on a regular basis, knows that you can’t actually treat children like adults: that way lies madness.

Except ... maybe the problem we have with that concept is only semantic. Do you treat all adults the same? Do you have some friends or co-workers who are absolutely brilliant, and others who are just a bit behind the curve? Do you treat those folks the same? Do you know anyone who’s developmentally disabled? Do you know anyone who has serious problems making good moral judgements? Do you know anyone who’s still struggling to learn your language and your culture? Do you treat all these myriad of people the same?

No, of course you don’t. Different people require different approaches: this is something you know instinctively. It’s not that you treat some people “specially”; it’s that everyone is special. Sure, some are “specialer” than others. But you modify your behavior for different people. How you talk to your mother, your drinking buddy, your priest, and your best friend from when you were six, are all going to be very different, regardless of whether they all happen to be “adults.” Whatever that word means.

So treating your children like people doesn’t mean treating them like adults: it means recognizing that they may have special needs, and sometimes they require special handling, but that they still deserve the same respect and recognition that all sentient beings deserve. You must give them moral guidance, but that doesn’t give you the right to beat it into them, either physically or verbally. You are required to keep them safe from physical harm, but that doesn’t mean controlling their every action in order to prevent them making a mistake. And you must teach them—the amount you must teach them is overwhelming, because they come to you knowing literally nothing—but that doesn’t make you superior to them. Your greater knowledge is not the same as having a greater intelligence. And, you know what? even if it were, you still wouldn’t get to treat them like they’re stupid. That’s just disrespectful.

Now, I chose to start my parental myths with the concept of treating your children as your friends. Probably I should have started here; if you can get your brain around being friends with your kids, you probably already got to the point of thinking of them as people. But if that earlier post went flying over your head, maybe this is an easier place to start. Just allow yourself to listen to your children, not just hear them. To think about what they’re saying instead of cursing the interruption to your day. To respond to them not as if they’re a cat who’s just scratched up your sofa, or a stubborn piece of clay which refuses to take the shape you’ve decided on, or a Boston fern with browning leaves that you’ll get around to watering tomorrow, or a frustration that causes you to count to 10 to avoid throwing things. And children are very good at invoking those responses in you, and you will not always be successful in avoiding those responses, and there’s no point being pissed off at yourself if you respond that way every once in a while. But never let that be your default response. Because that’s not how you treat people.

You know what might be the coolest part of treating your kids like people? My twelve-year-old is only about a month away from being twelve-and-a-half, and, as far as he’s concerned, that’s close enough to 13 that he can consider himself a teenager. He sleeps a lot these days, and he eats a lot these days, and he spends a buttload of time in his room with the door shut. But where he’s not a “typical” teenager (as if there could be such a thing) is in the sullen, emotionally withdrawn, acting out stereotype that we’ve come to associate with the teenage years. If anything, he’s actually more loving and easy to get along with than he was two or three years ago.

This morning he says to me, “You know, I think I already went through my rebellious phase.”

I responded: “Yeah, you did. I nearly killed you.” (But I smiled.)

He thought for a second and then said, “Well, I guess we won’t have to worry about that then.” Then he grinned and ran off back to his room. And shut his door.

Now, you can say all you like that different children are different, and that’s true. But I honestly believe that it’s made a huge difference, treating him like a person, letting him make mistakes, letting him have freedom, but at the same time teaching him that actions have consequences, and making him work out for himself how to control his own behavior so that everyone around him responds positively rather than negatively. He’s not a dumb kid (they so rarely are). He figured it out within the first ten years or so. So I honestly think it’s smooth sailing from here on out.

Of course, I could be wrong. Perhaps I’ll receive a rude awakening in a few years. But I can tell that you right now, I feel excited to see what the future brings. And I’ve known many a parent with a preteen on the verge of leaping into the great teenage unknown who was a lot more scared than I feel today.

I’ll take that.

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