Friday, July 15, 2022


When our daughter Josephine was young I took her to a new dentist, one that had come recommended by friends. She was nervous about the prospect and by the time she was in the chair she was on the verge of tears. What pushed her over the emotional edge, however, was the dentist's mean-spirited assertion, to me, over her worried head: "Kids do this all the time. She's just pretending to cry to get out of it."

It was a horrible and completely unnecessary insult, one that offended and frightened this particular four-year-old, but also all children. Not only was she clearly not trying to manipulate us with her tears, but it fed into harmful stereotypes about young children, especially girl children.

To call an adult "childish" is to suggest that they are behaving in a self-centered manner, an insult that includes such pejoratives as manipulative, demanding, whiny, pouty, and irrational. We hear the insult whenever a public figure behaves emotionally. We hear it from frustrated parents when they scold their children with taunts of "Grow up!" We hear it from the critics of those parents when they judge them for being too easily manipulated. "She has her mom wrapped around her little finger," they mutter as they shake their heads at the adult who actually believes their child's "nonsense." Even children themselves have learned that one of the worst insults at their disposal is to call their playmate out for being a baby.

The truth, of course, is that all children, just as all adults, will sometimes behave in selfish ways, but to lay the charge of cynical manipulation at the feet of young children is to reveal, at best, a gross misunderstanding of children. It's equally wrong, of course, to ascribe angelic qualities to younger humans, who share with the rest of humanity the propensity to make mistakes. The difference is that the mistakes of children are nearly always born of impulsiveness, imprudence, ignorance, and naivety, whereas it is adults we tend to insult as childish who are driven by guile, deceit, calculation and intelligence. 

But this is a wider problem than just an insult to children. When we dismiss other people's emotions as manipulative, we are saying that we don't believe them. It's a serious, mocking charge to level at another human, one that denies the fullness of their humanity, one that not only denigrates them, but the entire possibility of their fear or sadness being real. When we toss off these insults, when we deny our fellow humans their genuine emotions, we are insisting that their feelings are invalid or unimportant or phony or otherwise "wrong."

To label someone as childish means that we can dismiss them, their feelings, and their concerns. Sadly, this has become, in many quarters, the prevailing attitude toward all children, humans not worthy of our full respect. We dismiss their boredom and alienation from school, for instance, as a sign they are trying to get out of the "hard work" we are trying to lay on their shoulders "for their own good." We dismiss their concerns with knee-jerk disgust over "kids these days." We use the label of "child" as an insult.

If I've learned anything from working with young children is that most of what we view as childishness is either just projection of our own adult cynicism or a revelation of our own fear of being manipulated, a fear rooted in our inability or unwillingness to empathize with the genuine emotions of others. And when we do that, when we dismiss one another, we not only deny their humanity, but likewise, our own.

As we walked out of that dentist's office, Josephine, wailed, "I'm not pretending!" I assured her, over and over again, that I believed her.


Please join us August 13-17 for Teacher Tom's Play Summit. Click here to get your free pass and learn more about all 20 of our incredible sessions with early childhood experts and thought-leaders from around the world. You will be inspired, informed, and challenged. Professional development certificates are available and you can upgrade to unlimited access. Please share this far and wide.

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
Bookmark and Share

No comments: