At a friend’s place not too long ago a father told his young son “Be quiet! Big people are speaking.” The boy dutifully shut up.
I felt sorry for the eight-year old as he wasn’t being rude; he had in fact interjected just at a pause in our conversation the way a polite adult would have. His father who clearly grew up in the ‘children should be seen not heard’ tradition, probably felt it reflected badly on him to have his child join in on an adult conversation.
The interaction showed how our stereotypes about ageing work on both ends of life and may be just as destructive to the very young as it is to the very old.
Changing age stereotypes
Old people may not be losing capacities so much because of ageing but because of our narratives about ageing. These narratives guide our expectations and beliefs about the aged and from these come structures like retirement, old age homes etc., that cause the elderly to conform to our expectations. In other words, old people lose capacities sooner than they would because we set up structures, attitudes and beliefs that cause them to.
Similarly our ideas and beliefs about how children are, cause them to behave in ways that affirm our beliefs. Said another way, maybe children behave like children because we treat them that way, and maybe much of the immature childish behaviour we see among so many adults is because they learned to react this way as kids.
Turtle dude was right
We think the best way to prepare children for adulthood is through heavy restrictions, enforcement and spoon-feeding only what we think they can handle.
Perhaps it’s the opposite.
Perhaps the best way to prepare children for adulthood is to treat them more like adults i.e. light restrictions, consequence not enforcement, and trusting they will rise to the challenge. That’s what “Crush” the turtle dude was trying to tell Nemo’s father in “Finding Nemo.” (it’s at the end of the clip.)
It may be that we’ve been limiting our children’s potential with artificial boundaries that were all about tradition (this is how it’s done and don’t question it) and not about facilitating a child’s growth and development.
Precocious kids may just be the new normal
The father’s interaction with his eight-year old son reminded me of two very impressive TED talks by Logan Laplante and Adora Svitak who were 13 and 12 respectively at the time they gave their talks. Adora poked fun at the childish behaviour of adults, while giving great examples of what kids can accomplish. You can watch both videos below.
I’ll bet money that neither of them were ever admonished not to join adult conversations.
TV sitcoms have been exploiting the cute maturity of precocious kids like Gary Coleman (Different Strokes) and Rico Rodriquez (Modern Family) but maybe their adult behaviour and mannerisms are more normal than we realize.
And they’d grow up to be mature adults
Which brings me to the headline of this post. Why do adults fight, gossip, bully, and kick each other’s sand castles? Why do we persist in using reward and punishment (like money and prison time) to guide or punish behaviour?
Probably because that’s how we were brought up as children. Our emotional memory triggers childlike reactions to situations that exacerbate these same unwanted situations and trap us in cycles of unkindness, defensiveness and vengeance.
Perhaps much of the ‘childish’ behaviour Adora talks about in the video below exists because we’ve treated children with a lack of respect and trust. Abolishing corporal punishment was a good first step but maybe it’s only that—a first step. Perhaps we ought to take the logical next step and start treating these little people as practising adults.