I might have mentioned that I work at an elementary school. Every time
my boss someone asks me how I like it, I reply in all sincerity: “It’s the best job in the world!” Children are lovely, and the friendships I build with them are inexhaustible sources of joy and purpose. But that doesn’t mean it’s an easy job. Children are also obstinate, disrespectful, violent, sassy, and worst of all, they don’t listen. Few things are as exasperating as being swarmed by 25 nine-year-olds who take pleasure in doing the diametric opposite of everything you say.
It’s a prevailing opinion among conservative-leaning adults that we’ve gone too soft on our kids over the past half century. Kids are only unruly these days because we’ve squandered our natural authority and thus lost their respect. Back in the day, we taught children to fear our anger. Nowadays, we fear upsetting our children. Cue a generation of entitled brats. Or so people say. I don’t know, I’ve never been fully convinced by that idea. I always believed there was a different reason behind the modern child rebellion, going deeper than our supposed leniency. A couple of weeks ago, on a particularly taxing workday, epiphany struck:
Every annoying thing children do, us adults also do to them.
- Children get angry about trivial things!
Well, wouldn’t the things we get angry about seem trivial to children? They couldn’t care less about grass stains on their new jeans, but still have to put up with the fit we throw at the sight.
- Children don’t respect the rules!
And we do? Do we always make our beds in the morning, reserve candy for the weekends, and speak a language purged of vulgarities?
- Children want everything their way!
So do we! We place very specific expectations on our kids: go to school, get good grades, eat and sleep at the scheduled times, and be generally well-behaved. If they don’t enjoy doing those things, tough luck. Like children, we don’t take no for an answer.
- Children don’t listen!
Do we always listen to the things they say? Or do we distantly mumble an all-purpose response because we can’t be bothered to follow their ramblings?
- Children rattle on and on about uninteresting topics!
Well, the topics we rattle on about aren’t necessarily interesting to them either, are they? And hey, at least we can choose not to listen; kids are required to pay attention in school whether they’re interested in the subject or not.
- Children take all our hard work for granted!
True, but we often take their wonderful curiosity, unique observations, and unconditional love for granted. Besides, children didn’t ask to be born. We chose to have them, and to put in the hard work that follows.
- Children are violent!
Okay, to our credit, we’re not as violent as kids, at least not in countries that have shunned domestic corporal punishment. But we still use force to our advantage when we hold children against their will. And we mustn’t forget how large we appear to them. We may not exercise violence, but our towering presence is unsettling nonetheless.
- Children are impolite!
Again, to our credit, most adults are more polite than children. We say thank you, we hold the door, and we restrain ourselves from snatching the last cookie. But do we always apply the skill of courtesy to our interactions with the wee ones? Not in my experience. We rarely ask follow-up questions about their banal anecdotes. We interrupt them mid-sentence when they mispronounce a word. We’d rather holler “come here” when we want to talk, than just walk up to them ourselves.
- Children say mean things!
Yes, they do. I’ve received my share of gibes from the kids I work with, and some of them hurt. Still it didn’t hurt nearly as much as what they endure: being disciplined, criticized, told that what they’re doing is wrong. Every single day.
I could go on, but my point is: Children pick up their manners from us adults. Although my social learning theory is rusty, I remember that learning often occurs without instruction; children develop by instinctively observing and reproducing our behavior. But, being kids, they reproduce it imperfectly, in ways that are inconvenient to us. Thus we don’t recognize their behavior as a reflection of our own. No, we call it misbehavior and scold them. It’s a glaring double standard, is it not? Us adults have decided that the way we do things is reasonable, and the way kids try to do the same things is invalid. And, being fully grown human beings, we possess the power to enforce that decree.
Before your eyes sustain permanent rolling damage, let me clarify that I don’t think this is wrong. Adults have more life experience than children, our brains have developed further than theirs, and we’re responsible for their well-being – not the other way around. It only follows that we get to write the universal code of conduct, and that we have the right to be hypocritical. We have to hold children against their will sometimes. We can’t always listen to extended accounts of their latest Roblox exploits, because we’re too busy figuring out how to keep those same incessant mouths fed. We’re allowed to sneak a candy bar on a Tuesday, because we’re exhausted from parental (or pedagogic) duties. We must sometimes coerce kids into things they don’t like, in order to prepare them for adulthood. I’m well aware of these realities. Trust me, I’m not out to demonize adults.
I’m just saying that we shouldn’t be so surprised when children misbehave. They get it from us. Nor should we get disproportionately mad. It’s very human to blow up at kids, but seldom fair. What we should do is be the bigger person, true to our physical stature, keeping in mind that children are always struggling to be like us. We should appreciate that effort, and delicately guide it along.
Don’t misunderstand me. It’s absolutely necessary to get mad when kids do something very wrong. Some lessons are so crucial for children to learn early that there needs to be stern lectures about them – respecting other people’s bodies, for instance. But let’s conduct those lectures with an understanding of how hard it is to be a kid. How disheartening it is to constantly try and fail at being an adult.
Also, not every transgression or misstep demands a consequence. Sometimes, it’s enough to have faith that things will fall into place in due time. As children grow, they learn to pick up adult behaviors the “right” way. The more practice they get, the more precision they apply to their keen mimicry of us.
Okay, but why was this not as big of a problem before? Why were children so well-behaved in the past, before these decades of delinquency? Is there something to be said for an authoritarian return to form? All of this, and a lot more, will be dealt with in the next post. That’s right, you’re reading my very first two-parter. I don’t see it becoming a habit; I just had so much to say on the topic that I felt stifled by the confines of the blog post genre. It would have been too long to read, anyway. We all have the attention spans of children these days. See you in the conclusion! 🙂