Living in the bubble that is a small liberal arts school, we don’t tend to interact with children much. The entire Knox experience is centered around a thousand young adults studying, living and getting drunk together with a small number of older adults participating in the first activity as well (but hopefully not the latter two). Children are largely absent from the picture.
But that’s part of the reason that I’m writing this column. Most of us do have kids in our lives. Many of us have younger siblings, and many of us plan to have kids. Many of our faculty members have kids. And I think that even those of us who don’t have close relationships with kids, or plan to in the future, owe it to ourselves and society to have a good relationship with our younger peers.
So here’s my main point: in our society, we have a bad habit of trivializing kids’ needs or integrity. Pranking your girlfriend by telling her you cheated on her is generally just not okay (the guy in that viral video on the Internet is pretty lucky his girlfriend ended up turning the tables on him and making it funny). But a popular TV host like Jimmy Kimmel can get away with asking parents to lie to their children about their Halloween candy and laughing when they cry.
This is considered okay because candy is not all that important. Well, to adults it isn’t because we have bigger things in our lives. Kids have no “big” things, so the “small” things are big. Both children and adults have the same place in life for big priorities; what fills those priorities looks markedly different, but the meaning attached to them is similar. Parents can tell their children that what their friends at school think of them doesn’t matter, but those are empty words if they don’t come from someone who knows how to be isolated from their community and be at peace anyway. Chances are that’s not a description that fits most of us.
A lot of problems that kids have are unwittingly created by us in the first place. When a child is driven into hyperactivity by the high of holiday present-giving crashes after they’re all opened, it’s not necessarily unrelated to the fact that we had invited them to be Santa; we encouraged them to deliver each person’s present and urged them to help unwrap them.
Based on the assumption that our kids have the mental capacity of a parrot, we incessantly direct them to focus on material things like presents, rather than relaxing and allowing the holiday spirit of love and family dominate the room. We adults have the emotional resilience to not care too much about presents, because of the larger context of our lives. Kids don’t have that larger context. They deserve our help in establishing it for themselves.
“When I [talk with] young children, the only difference I’m aware of is that I draw from a simpler vocabulary,” said Byron Katie, a motivational speaker. I try to relate to children with the respect I would give to adults who are simply not yet acculturated to this world, like a foreign exchange student who needs a dictionary for the test or doesn’t know what to order on the menu. Some people might find the “treat your children as adults” line condescending.
What if your child is crying and needs comfort? Let’s be real here: most adults would never deny comfort to their adult friends when they’re crying. And in no way am I implying that setting boundaries is not important in parent-child relationships; boundaries are important in all relationships. This is a subtle, but very rewarding, shift in thinking.
In remembering what our lives used to be like as kids, I’d like to end this column with one of my favorite quotations. It’s from the Canadian writer Margaret Atwood: “Little girls are cute and small only to adults. To one another they are not cute. They are life sized.”