Today I am sharing a guest post from my friend Jeannie who blogs over at The Magic Nutshell. Jeannie is a creative writer, mother, and self-named “professional social justice sidekick”. Thanks for sharing, Jeannie!
My two-year-old daughter is the only juvenile human on my mother’s side of my family. My grandparents had five children, but only one of them (my mom) became a parent, and only one of her children (me) has had a child—possibly the only great-grandchild my grandparents will ever see. How times have changed! Children are not quite the expected and ever-present fact of life that they were in previous generations. Children are more precious than ever, yet it seems that child-free adults are less tolerant of childishness than ever before. My older relatives seem eager to see my daughter at family gatherings, but when she does anything characteristic of a two-year-old (like hide her face shyly when personal questions are barked at her), they often say things like, “Oh look, you’ve turned into a spoiled brat!” I’m tempted to respond with, “Oh look, you’ve turned into a rancid old biddy!” but our culture frowns upon disrespecting our elders the same way that we do to children. Why is that?
Ben Martin, marriage editor at The Good Men Project, wrote an article called “Why Aren’t We Rude to Grown-Ups the Way We Are Rude to Kids?” It seems obvious to me why it’s not socially acceptable for adults to treat each other like trash all the time, but it begs the question, “Why do so many adults think it is acceptable to be rude to kids?”
I think there are both external and internal reasons why many adults in our society respond to children this way. Martin gives some examples of adults who seem to be at their wits’ end in situations where they are in charge of large groups of children. Western culture is unusual in our expectation that lone adults (parents, nannies, teachers, etc.) should be able to manage whole herds of kids for extended periods of time. Of course, positive qualities like patience and affection wear thin when spread out among 20 or 30 energetic youngsters. But I think there’s more to our culture’s acceptance of disdain for minors.
First, there are cultural beliefs about how children should be raised which are changing so rapidly than not everyone has kept up with the program. In my own family, I see a vast difference in generational beliefs about children and the dreaded “spoiling.” My grandparents both come from ultra-conservative, German Catholic immigrant families. Their parents valued severity and wholesome “strictness,” which certainly did not exclude the use of corporal punishment. Legend has it that my grandfather’s father was brutally abusive, although nobody likes to talk about those things—“no talking” is a favorite phrase of my grandmother when conversations deviate from topics you might hear on The Andy Griffith Show. And of course, it applies especially to children, who “should be seen and not heard.”
In generations past, I understand that it was more important to establish a strong pecking order within the family and society to keep large herds of children in line. My grandparents come from a culture that abhors birth control and glorifies large families with cowed, mute, and obedient children. On the occasions when my grandparents used to take their five children out to a restaurant, they were often praised with comments such as, “Your children are so good! They haven’t made a peep this whole time.” It was a point of pride for parents to train children to be as quiet and as responsive to commands as working dogs.
Up until the past century, children were also expected to earn their keep by working very hard, either in the home or out on a farm or in a factory making slave wages. Play, frivolity, creativity, and individuality were not valued, because the survival of the family had to come first. In these scenarios, which seem cruel and bleak to me and my circle of parental peers, most families were just not high enough on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to put that much thought or resources into the emotional development or long-term wellness of an individual child.
Ancient and medieval history corroborates the idea that socially pervasive ill-treatment of children had certain perceived advantages (however unattractive to modern people) that were valued at certain times and places. It is said that the ancient Magyars, a fierce tribe of Eurasian raiders, would slice their newborn babies’ faces with a knife so that they would know pain before their mother’s milk. This was believed to toughen them up in a culture that valued aggression and violence. There are many other less drastic examples to be found of cultures, or subcultures, that actively try to instill violence in their children for various reasons—to help them become “top dog” in a vicious society or to attempt to protect them from harm with a “bully first or be bullied” mentality.
Then there are fundamentalist religious circles that believe physical abuse is good for children because they think treating children roughly will somehow teach them gentleness. The Biblical phrase “spare the rod and spoil the child” is especially beloved, taken to extremes, and misunderstood by religious zealots with poor educations.
Old habits die hard. By default, people tend to treat children the way they themselves were treated as children. It’s very ironic that the people who believe children learn from punishment, not example, are the ones who mistreat children simply because that’s how they were raised—obviously, they learned from example. I see memes and hear people boasting that they learned respect by being spanked. Apparently they also learned to trust the thinking of their elders by being lied to or denied information on “adult” subjects. In reality, these people who take pride in their own mistreatment as children feel justified in passing along the cycle of dysfunction—supposedly for the good of the children.
Many people actively promote abusive treatment of children due to beliefs that they somehow benefit the children, but I think there is still more to why everyday Americans feel so comfortable acting rude to kids. I think that much of the time, it happens for the opposite reason—many adults simply don’t care about children. They don’t respect or value their existence. There are socially conservative holdovers from my parents’ and grandparents’ generations that believe all childlike behaviors and qualities should be driven out of children like demon spirits, and then there are socially liberal people who have contempt for young families due to fears of overpopulation and the soul-staining power of the carbon footprint.
Both camps fail to understand that today’s children are the future, like it or not, and the way we treat them is our shared legacy as human beings. Furthermore, the way we treat them is the way they learn how to treat others and themselves.
Conservative and liberal ethics seem like polar opposites much of the time, but there are common threads in obsessions with purity (whether it’s sexual or nutritional, religious or political). The worst insult we throw at children, and the worst fear that parents have about their children, is that they are “spoiled.”
We all agree that spoilage is the worst, though we have terribly vague and conflicting notions about what it means or how it happens. Obviously, our children are not slabs of dead meat that will start to rot at the first sign of warmth. Yet there’s this baffling conflation, in our culture, of materialism with emotional nurturing. The term “spoiled” is hurled at children whose parents try to fill the holes of neglect with material possessions, but it’s also used on children whose parents shower them with affection.
Regardless of what it means exactly, the most toxic thing about the “spoiled rotten” insult is that it places the shame directly on the child, taking the focus off the child’s caregivers and social network. We do shame parents by accusing them of “spoiling” their kids, but it’s the child who bears the image of irreparable tarnish and degradation, not the people who supposedly caused the damage. And it further justifies harshly judgmental, punitive treatment of the child by everyone, even strangers passing by.
Across generations and belief systems, I think it has become cool, in our society, to despise children. George Carlin got a lot of laughs when he said, “Children are overrated.” Since the advent of effective birth control half a century ago, having children has become a matter of personal choice for most people today. Some folks even view reproduction as an expensive, wasteful vanity project. In highly developed societies from Germany to California and elsewhere, most young adults put off having children until later in life and have far fewer of them (if any) than those who came of age before the sixties. Western culture values money, investments, productivity, and adult-oriented recreation. Of course, none of those things would continue to be possible without any new adults coming into the workforce, but children are awfully labor-intensive and unpredictable creations. In our fast-paced world, the blissfully child-free tend to view parenting as a questionable life choice, a foolish investment, or a public nuisance, not something to be encouraged, celebrated, or supported.
What gives me hope is that the attitudes of strangers and distant relatives matter far less to children than the love of their parents. And today’s parents are more conscientious than ever before—with good reason. Today’s children will need a complex set of social and intellectual skills to adapt in a world that is rapidly changing—mostly for the better. Life expectancy in the developed world has reached a historic high of about 80 years—most people now live for the better part of a century (sometimes even more), and they need solid foundations of physical, mental, and emotional health as well as intellectual, creative, and leadership skills. We need people who will support one another in positive, long-term relationships and thrive for many decades of life as contributing members of the most peaceful generation in all of history.
Our goals as gentle parents are far different from many of our ancestors’. Instead of raising fearsome aggressors trained to beat off attackers with a club until they reach the reproductive age of 12, thus carrying on a precarious genetic line, we seek to raise happy, loving, long-lived people. We try to model pro-social behaviors that will help them build supportive social networks and navigate a growing, diversifying world with confidence and grace. We hope to raise innovators who will improve the world they inherit and lead future generations into an increasingly peaceful future. Instead of obedience and submission, we strive to instill trust, creativity, and confidence.
Parents know more about parenting than ever before. I do many things very differently than my parents did, and my parents did things very differently than their own. We live in an information age in which we have access to scientific evidence about how our actions affect our children. Most of us understand that children learn to treat others the way they are treated—respect (not abuse) breeds respect, violence breeds violence, dishonesty breeds dishonesty, and rudeness breeds rudeness. People who are rude to children were children once themselves, and there’s a good chance they did not receive the respect and care that might have raised them into kind adults. It may or may not be too late for them, but it’s not too late for my child to see good behavior modeled in the way I interact with her and with other people—even in tense circumstances.
And that is why when somebody calls my child spoiled rotten, I do not reply with another insult. I simply turn to my child and make sure she feels safe and that she knows she hasn’t become a vile mass of decay. Because if anybody is reaching their expiration date, it’s not her.
** by Jeannie Miernik