I recognized them as the nice family from our building, their son, who looks to be approaching 3, was straddling one of those wooden, peddle-less bikes a lot of the kids are starting out on these days. He was in the midst of a mini-tantrum, stamping his feet, while emitting a whine-cry of frustration. His father was kneeling beside him. As I passed I heard the dad say, in the gentlest, most loving voice imaginable, "If you keep acting like this you won't be able to ride your bike for a whole hour. And that's a long time."
Several weeks ago I was taking a recreational stroll through Pike Place Public Market, the heart and soul of Seattle, where in the summer tourists throng. A boy, probably around 8, and his mother were having one of those heatless debates:
Boy (excitedly): "I want to go down that side."
Mom (jovially): "Oh, you don't want to go down that side. Let's go down this side. What do you want to see over there anyway?"
Boy (barely audible): "That side."
By then she had taken his hand and it was over.
Just down at the end my street there's a newish park at the south end of Lake Union where I often walk my dogs. During the summer, a length of the sidewalk emits fountains of water, arches under which children in bathing suits run on hot days. Every time I'm there, I hear parents saying to timid children, "Go under it!" "Get in it." "Don't be afraid."
These are all just snippets overheard, out of context, and I don't know anything about the lives that lead up to those moments. We all speak with our loved ones unconsciously at times, maybe most of the time, in moments of stress or other distraction for sure, when our brains are working on things other than the relationship in which we're presently engaged. It's impossible to always be in the moment, especially as a parent, but oh if we could only really hear ourselves speaking from the perspective of a disengaged passerby, how much we'd learn about ourselves and our relationships. So much more, I think, or at least so much different, than what we know about ourselves when we are steadfastly present and aware of our every word.
I think, for many of us, the idea that the adult is "the boss" is such a deeply rooted concept that we act as if it is an unquestioned truth. And sometimes, I suppose, we are "the boss," like when we need to take charge in urgent moments where safety is concerned. Stop! Don't go in the street! That kind of thing. But too often we confuse being responsible for someone with being their superior, and that pre-supposition of command crops up in moments when there's really no point, like a bad habit.
It would never occur to us, for instance, to threaten to punish an adult for expressing an emotion like frustration in a non-violent way. In fact, I'd say stamping your feet and crying is a pretty straight-forward way to feel it, release it, then put it behind you. How much better than the adult-approved method of smiling through gritted teeth. When we threaten punishment for expressing an emotion, I think what we are really saying is, I'm embarrassed by the way you're acting. I fear it reflects poorly on me as a parent. That would be an inappropriate, incomprehensible load to lay on a child, so instead we threaten them even if we don't really mean it.
(As Lao Tzu puts it, "Let your feelings flourish and get on with your life of doing." Kids are often masters of that, if we can just let them go. Seriously, if someone has to be the boss about emotions, I'm all for playing second fiddle. We don't know more about emotions than children simply by virtue of being adults: in fact, I've learned just about everything I know about emotions from working with kids.)
And how about this idea that we get to tell children how they feel or what they really want? "You don't want to go down that side," "Oh, you're not hurt," "You don't really want that." Adding the question, "Do you?" to the end of it doesn't help. Believe me, the boy really did want to go down "that side," it does really hurt, and yes, she genuinely wants that. What we are really saying, is "I don't want to go down that side, "I wish that didn't hurt," "I don't want to give you that." What children hear is, "I don't believe you," and "I'm the grown-up, ergo, I know better." The language of command teaches children to distrust their own understanding, even of their own feelings.
I've written before about the knee-jerk use of directional statements: "Sit here," "Put that away," "Go over there." These too, clearly come from the habit of command. So ingrained is this in many of us that we direct, "Go under it!" when what we mean is, "It looks like it would be fun to go under it." We dictate, "Don't be afraid," when what we mean is, "I know you're afraid."
Perhaps as adults we've come to understand the code, to know that when our loved ones say, "Come here!" they aren't really bossing us, but rather just taking a short cut around saying, "I would like you to come over here," although I suspect most of us still feel a flash of resentment each time someone uses the language of command with us. Children, however, only hear that they are being told what to do, how to feel, and even that they might be punished for what is, after all, their own truth.
I have no expectation for you or for me that we will be able to be utterly free of this mind-set. It's a very powerful one, this idea that adults are the boss, a notion that most people will never question, let alone examine. And even those of us who are fully aware, still, in unguarded moments, often fall into the language habits of command, not just with our children, but with our spouses, friends and colleagues. It's a pervasive thing. If we work on it, however, if we're reflective and conscious, our children won't be as likely to develop the habit as they become adults.
That's, at least, the plan.
Update: I've written a follow-up to this post entitled "Spoiled Brats" which goes into more specific details and answers some questions not addressed here.
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