Treating Children as Equals
By Jody Wright
A mother asks us how mature we are with children.
The shades were drawn, so I couldnít see the man outside,
but I could hear him very clearly. He was yelling at someone. Was it at
a child or a dog? I couldnít tell which was being hurt by his power-packed
As I listened to his abrasive words, I began to get an adult perspective
of something I was aware of as a child. Most of the time people talk differently
to kids than to adults, and often they act differently, too. I began to
watch adult-child interactions and eventually became aware of the discrimination
that often comes through what I call adultism.
Adultism hasnít been widely explored. Except for Parent Effectiveness
Training and a few other books on ways to talk to children, I havenít found
much to read on it. With five children, I often see adultism in the way
I act and in the way others act. Here are some examples:
My friend is the director of a preschool. As parents come to drop off
children, their eyes seek out the teacher, they say hello to another adult,
but usually completely ignore the children who pass back and forth within
inches of them. This is a common way of treating children in our culture:
A child comes into a room; the door slams behind. The child is immediately
reprimanded. Would we be that quick to reprimand an adult, or would we
let it go by a few times before nicely saying something? Ordering, directing,
and preaching is a big part of the role that our culture has defined for
adults in their relationship with children.
In India, my children had a constant battle to fight the cheek pinchers.
In our culture, too, there are head pats, hugs, kisses, slaps on the back
and tickling that kids have to deal with. Physically we often ignore a
childís rights to their bodies in ways we donít usually to adults. Most
children like to be touched, but they need to be "listened" to as you touch
If a child is doing something that disturbs an adult, we expect the
child to do the changing. Weíve been taught that adults are doing important
things, and children are doing unimportant things, thus an adultís "work"
has higher priority than a childís "play" when space, noise, etc. is bothersome.
In many ways, our culture has completely different ideas of what is
expected of a child than an adult. When we talk of kids being "disciplined,"
we mean that they follow what others say or want. When we talk of an adult
being disciplined, we mean that they are following inner motivation to
do something. If someone works fast on an assembly line because they would
get fired if they fell behind, we wouldnít call that being disciplined,
but if a child sits quietly at the table and eats "properly" because he
will get in trouble if he doesnít, we call that disciplined.
Adultism is very common in education. We think that adults can learn
on the job, and we donít worry about whether our spouse is "learning" each
day. But we think that children have to be taught by an adult in order
to learn anything useful, and that real learning only happens in classes.
What Causes Adultism?
We conceive of a child in our culture as knowing nothing, and of adults
as the teachers who write on this blank slate. Under this theory, adults
are the all-powerful molders of our children. They are like clay that we
must shape before it hardens.
If we conceive of children as knowing less than us, with knowledge and
maturity and size being the main differences between us and children, then
it is easy to treat children as inferior. What if we broadened our views
of what a child is? What if we saw children as miraculous seeds that hold
within them all the potential to grow into dynamic human beings? They are
filled with curiosity, energy, and the ability to communicate from birth,
not in words but in smiles, tears, and cuddles. They are spiritual beings,
perhaps closer to a knowledge of God, having just been born from her, than
From this point of view, we become gardeners for living things, rather
than potters of old clay.
If we look at children as whole beings who are more than their small
bodies and fresh minds, we see that they are very spiritual, often very
much in touch with that essence of life that we as adults are striving
to feel again. They have a will and a personality that can be seen from
their birth. In a holistic view of a child, only their mind and body are
undeveloped; their will, their emotions, and their soul are all similar
to ours as adults. Recognizing this, we can become more empathic to a child.
We can feel that children are not something separate from us but a part
of our group. Then we will no longer treat children differently but respond
instead to the need of each situation.
Here are some things you can do to reduce your own "adultism":
1. Make eye contact with children and give them your complete attention.
Recognize them when you meet them, and include them in your conversations
with others. To do this successfully, you will need to open yourself up
to recognizing the cues (eye contact, body language, etc.) that children
and teens give to let you know how the interaction is going, just as you
recognize these cues in adults.
2. Watch the words you say to children. How do they compare with those
you would use in the same situation with adults? Are you negotiating solutions
or giving orders? Are you mentioning things you would not bother to mention
to an adult? Are you changing your tone of voice and thus speaking down
3. Take a course or read a book on better communication skills, such
as Parent Effectiveness Training. Communication skills will help you learn
to think about and say things in ways that treat others (including children)
as equals, and encourages problem solving that helps all parties involved
get their needs met.
4. Before criticizing a child, stop and ask yourself if it is really
worth it. Can you change the environment rather than criticize the child?
Padding on a door to keep it from slamming will prevent it every time,
whereas most children would have to be constantly reminded not to slam
it again. Is this a one time only thing or repetitive? Often we correct
children on things that will never occur again. Try "quiet" techniques.
If I see my child using a knife she isnít ready for, I simply take it and
put it up. Nothing said, no anger. She isnít insulted, my needs are met,
and she knows exactly what I mean. I call this "Quiet Parenting."
5. Donít embarrass your children by "disciplining" them in front of
others. I learned this one as a child myself. If you have something you
need to convey, tell them very discreetly or away from others. You would
do the same for your partner! I find some people in our culture are very
proud to yell at their child in front of others. They think it shows that
they are in control of their children. Usually it leaves me quite upset
inside, sympathizing more with the child than the parent. Correcting children
is an intimate act that should be done in private, preferably with the
child in your arms, with you sharing your feeling and concerns. Hardly
material for shopping centers!
6. Work to change the way you think of children, starting with your
own. Appreciate the amazing growth they go through on a daily basis and
the strength and will it takes for them to do it. Listen to them, their
words, but mostly their body language and expressions. Give lots of love.
It will open their hearts and yours, too.
This is really the goal: not to act with less adultism, but to think
with less. It is easy to slip back into relating to children the way you
were related to as a child, but even being able to act differently half
the time is well worth it. Children will begin to feel like real people,
and act like it, too!
JODY WRIGHT is the president of Motherwear,
a catalog for breastfeeding mothers. She is a mother of five children,
a La Leche League Leader, and an infant massage instructor. This article
was published in the book, Parenting from the Heart, available from Motherwear
This article was published in New Renaissance magazine
Vol. 8, No. 3
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