Tuesday, January 11, 2022

"This Vested Interest In The Children's Incompetence"

As a child, there were certain adults who I instantly liked, whereas there were others for whom I would take an immediate dislike. It generally came down to how they treated me. If they looked me in the eye, spoke in their normal voice, laughed at my jokes, not my mistakes, and refrained from such intrusive things as patting me on the head, pinching my cheeks, or picking me up without my consent, then they were one of the "good guys."

Most adults in mixed-age social settings would just ignore me, which was fine, because I would likewise ignore them, preferring the company of my fellow children, but there were always some who would loom at me, smiling too widely, speaking too loudly, sometimes even descending into a kind of baby talk. They might have been well-intended, but I resented their insipid, prying questions, questions they would never dare ask an adult they didn't know: "What are you going to be when you grow up?" or "Are you a good boy for your teacher?" They would look around at the other adults as I obediently replied beaming condescendingly as if they were a confederacy of superior beings deigning to include the cute, precious, innocent child for a moment.

To this day, there are few things more certain to set this early childhood educator's teeth on edge than adults who condescend to children. As a boy, the irritation was with their obvious phoniness and their clear, insulting assumption that I was some kind of baby. Now, however, I understand that it is even worse. These are adults, and there are more of them now than ever, who see children not as an individual humans, but rather as an idea, a stereotype. They don't see actual people, but rather their concept of children as incomplete adults -- simple, unformed, incompetent, and so so so charmingly innocent. It is okay to command or control them, to even lie to them, just so long as they can convince themselves that it's "for their own good."

Many of these people are in charge of schools and curriculum. Many are teachers. There are even parents who start off with this attitude only to spend the next couple decades mourning the loss of their vision of what a child is as their own child proves to be an actual human being. These are the parents who think they are doing their child a service by protecting them from learning about sex or racism because they are too tender and dear to be exposed to such things.

John Holt writes, "It is condescending when we respond to qualities that enable us to feel superior to the child. It is sentimental when we respond to qualities that do not exist in the child but only in some vision or theory that we have about children . . . Children do not like being incompetent any more than they like being ignorant. They want to learn to do, and do well, the things they see being done by bigger people around them. This is why they soon find school such a disappointment; they so seldom get a chance to learn anything important or do anything real. But many of the defenders of childhood, in or out of school, seem to have this vested interest in the children's incompetence, which they often call 'letting the child be a child.'"

We are born into the shock of light, cold, and sound, then must spend our first days learning to live with it. From the moment we come into this world, we are fully aware that there is pain, fear, and that life is often unfair. We are never innocent in this life: the idea of childhood innocence is really just adults romanticizing ignorance. Our children do not need to be protected from the hard lessons of life, even if that were possible. They do not benefit from our theories about what children are and are not. They are here on this earth, like all of us, to learn what it means to be alive and our responsibility as important adults in their lives is to be fellow travelers, consoling them when the lessons are hard, helping them when the tasks are difficult, but most of all loving them as the capable, competent humans they are.


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"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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