It’s a confusing world to try and make sense of for children.
Our job as parents is to support and guide them through it, and yet I can’t help but notice how often common parenting practices make things a whole lot more confusing.
“We constantly ask ourselves, in anxiety and pain, “What is best for the children, what is right for the children, what should we do for the children?” The question is an effect as well as a cause of modern childhood. Until the institution was invented, it would hardly have occurred to anyone to ask the question or, if they had, to suppose that what was good for children was any different from what was good for everyone else.” -John Holt, Escape from Childhood
While we may be aiming for them to grow up to be capable, self-motivated, confident, healthy people, our actions say otherwise. Instead of treating children how they should be treated (and how we would like them to treat others), we constantly contradict ourselves, instead showing them they are incapable and untrustworthy, as well as damaging their self-confidence and intrinsic motivation.
And what’s more? Some of the ‘rules’ we have for children are just downright unfair and hypocritical.
We really need to rethink a lot of the messages we send to children through our words and behaviour.
10 Confusing Messages We Send Children
1. I don’t have to sleep alone, but you do
So many adults dislike sleeping alone. I cannot sleep when my husband is away! It’s just not the same being all alone in bed. Usually, I do have some little people snuggled up to me, but even then it’s ‘different’ without my usual person beside me. Expecting children to sleep alone before they’re ready then seems a bit hypocritical.
Children are also expected to go to bed on schedules set by someone else, instead of listening to their own tired signs. This would be absurd for an adult. Children feel tiredness, they want to be healthy and feel good. When they are free from control, they are able to listen to their bodies and make appropriate choices.
Want to learn more about cosleeping? Read these…
2. I know when I’m hungry, but you don’t
Although we wouldn’t dream of asking an adult to “have one more bite for me”, children are often not afforded the same rights to listen to their bodies. They are commonly expected to eat to please adults rather than to satisfy their own hunger.
Not only is it more respectful to allow children to be in control of their basic bodily functions and needs, it’s also better for their long-term health.
“Parents create environments for children that may foster the development of healthy eating behaviours and weight, or that may promote overweight and aspects of disordered eating. Positive parental role model may be a better method for improving a child’s diet than attempts at dietary control.” –Influence of parental attitudes in the development of children eating behaviour
More information on autonomy with food…
3. I can tell if I’m cold, but you can’t
“Put your coat on, it’s cold”
“I’m not cold”
“You must be. Put it on now.”
Sound familiar? No one would do that to an adult. We know that humans can feel if they are hot or cold, they don’t need to be forced into clothing dependent on someone else’s evaluation of how their body feels. Recommend, sure. Bring a coat for them if you think they’ll change their mind, sure. But no need to undermine their trust in their own body.
4. I can decide to have a day off, but you cannot
Adults are allowed to have ‘lazy’ days, ‘sick’ days, ‘relaxing’ days, but children are often not allowed the same. Binge watch Netflix as an adult, fine. Chill in front of the TV for more than your allotted ‘screen time‘ if you’re a child, not fine. Even wanting a day off school is seen as some type of manipulation.
Maybe we can instead see it as children listening to their needs. Knowing when to slow down and take time out is a good thing.
5. I can cut my hair, but you need permission
Take your child to the hairdresser and the chances are they will not consult your child on how they want their own hair, they will ask you, the parent. Why? Because that’s what they are used to. Parents dictating to a child how they should look is a common occurrence. From haircuts, to clothing choices, to ear piercing. None of these decisions should belong to anyone else other than the person who owns the body. The rules don’t change dependent on age.
Read more about the importance of bodily autonomy here…
6. My feelings are important, but yours are trivial
Most decent people would never ignore, downplay, or mock another adult’s emotions, and yet it is not seen as disrespectful to do the same to a child.
“When we, as parents, try to control a child’s emotions, we strip her of who she is in that moment and require that she push her emotions down rather than allowing the feelings to flow.” -Teresa Graham Brett, Parenting for Social Change
Children learn to deal with their feelings in healthy ways not by adults shutting them down. Emotional regulation skills are developed through being free to express your feelings and receiving support and empathy.
7. Too much screen time is bad for you, but not for me
At the same time as screen time limits are strictly imposed on children, adults are modelling their own dependence on screens. We can’t expect children to have more self-control than us, and we can’t expect them to really believe that screens are terrible when we clearly don’t think so ourselves.
Screens are not the enemy. Disconnected relationships based on control and power are. Any problem can be solved in the context of an authentic, connected, respectful relationship. We can talk with our children about what healthy bodies and minds need, and any negatives of screens, while problem solving together when needed. No arbitrary rules necessary.
More on screens…
8. You have to share your things, but I don’t
“You’ve had that toy long enough, it’s your sister’s turn now. We have to share our things.”
“No, you can’t play with my phone, it’s mine.”
Double standards much? The truth is we don’t HAVE to share our personal belongings if we don’t want to, and children shouldn’t have to either. Forcing sharing just builds resentment and makes children less likely to be empathetic and want to share in the future.
9. You must stop what you’re doing immediately when I ask, but I won’t
Although it’s perfectly reasonable to ask a child to wait before you do something for them if you’re in the middle of something important, why does this not apply to children as well? They are often not allowed to tell us to wait. Adults deem what they are doing unimportant and expect them to stop immediately when asked to do something else.
If you want someone to do something for you it’s common courtesy to ask, not demand, allow them the choice to decline, and wait for them to finish what they are doing first (unless it’s an emergency). If we want children to respect our time, we must show them how to do that by respecting theirs too.
10. I can be trusted to learn, but you can’t
No adult is told what they must learn and when, without their consent. We trust that if they need to learn something, they will seek to learn it. We accept that they get to choose their own interests and topics they want to explore further. Children, on the other hand, are not seen as capable of following their own interests. In fact, their individual interests are given the least importance. They are expected to prioritise learning a set curriculum, at the same pace as everyone else their age. But, children are born ready and willing to direct their own learning, if given the chance.
“How did we go from conditions in which learning was self-directed and joyful to conditions in which learning is forced on children in ways that make so many of them feel helpless, anxious, and depressed? Children’s instincts for self-directed learning can work today as well as they ever did. When provided with freedom and opportunity, children can and do educate themselves marvelously for our modern world. The schools that we see around us are not products of science and logic; they are products of history. History is not logical; it is not directed toward any planned ends; and it does not necessarily produce progress in the sense of improved human conditions.” -Peter Gray, Free to Learn
As adults, we have a strong sense of how we should be treated. We know when someone is disrespecting us. We know when our rights are being trampled on.
Children deserve the same as we hope to receive for ourselves. Their age does not make them less worthy. If we want them to believe they are capable, trustworthy, in charge of their lives, and free to express themselves, then we must act that way.
Let’s treat children with respect and fairness, and stop contradicting ourselves!