A fundamental belief about children

She was supposed to be sitting still and paying attention.  But she wasn’t.  My six year old sprawled across her seat, and the woman next to her, a woman of a different generation, hissed, “sit still!”

Later, my daughter buried her face in my cardigan in embarrassment and unhappiness.  “Why was she so rude to me mummy?” she asked.  “She could have at least said ‘please’!”  Indeed she could have.  I mulled it over as I made Sunday lunch and when we sat down to eat I said to my daughters, “Did you know that there are some people who think that children are basically naughty and need adults to teach them how to behave properly?”

I didn’t expect the stunned silence that followed.  To say they were shocked, nay horrified, at the idea is an understatement.  Poised forks hovered in mid-air, ready mouths gaping.  Iona threw her fork down onto her plate in a dramatic display of disgust, “What?!”

I asked them, “If you were a person who thought that children are naughty and need adults to teach them how to behave, how would you act?”  My six year old glowered that those adults would just be mean, because they enjoyed being mean and didn’t like children (she was still cross at having been chastised).  My nine year old, on the other hand, had a very perceptive answer: “No, mummy, they wouldn’t think they were being mean.  They’d think they were doing their duty because the child needs to be told.”

This conversation came back to me as I read Carlos Gonzalez’s book Kiss Me: How to raise your children with love, which I bought this weekend.  In the first chapter Gonzalez explains:

Some of us see children as gentle, delicate, helpless, loving and innocent; they need our care and attention in order to grow into wonderful people.  Others see children as selfish, wicked, hostile, cruel, and calculating, and only by bending them to our will from the beginning, only by means of strict discipline can we lead them away from evil and make worthwhile beings of them.

It struck me that so many conflicts in parenting (among parents and between parents and extended family or outsiders) arise from this single, fundamental difference in values.  One side believes parents to be a child’s loving, supportive hand-holder through life, helping him to blossom and find his own path.  The other side believes that children need firmer guidance, even punishment, to learn lessons and be moulded into an adult.  One side is about love, the other is about discipline.  Both think they are doing the ‘right thing.’

The woman who barked, “sit still” thought she was doing her duty.  But she was rude. She didn’t say please.  She didn’t consider that she was talking to another human being.  She assumed the worst of my child.  Later, the same woman approached me: “I didn’t mean to upset her. I just wanted her to sit still.”  My indignation with this woman turned to sadness.  What must it be like to see life through her eyes?  How hard it must be to approach every interaction with a child in an adversarial way.

One of my most inspiring professors at University used to talk about starting people off with a ‘plus sign.’  Even before he knows someone, he thinks of them positively.  They’re in credit with him.  He likes them before he has a chance to get to know them.  He doesn’t approach them with a wait-and-see attitude of neutrality.  He doesn’t assume the worst and wait to be convinced otherwise.  Not only does he give each person the benefit of the doubt, he takes an active stance: I don’t know you, but I like you already.

I have tried it and I can attest that this approach to life brings unaccountable joy.  When you like someone already, you tend to see their mistakes as foibles, the annoying things about their personality as quirks.  When you like someone already you’re willing to see things through their eyes, to make excuses for them.  When you like someone already, you’re aware of how good it feels to like them, and you want to preserve that.

So today I ask, regardless of where you fall on the love vs discipline continuum, please, let’s just start them out with a plus sign.

Photo credit: By Julio Nohara (http://www.abeuni.org.br/php/comissao/pf/pfe1.pdf) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

 

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