Most of us are familiar with the phrase, “Children should be seen and not heard”. What does that actually mean? It means that children should behave the way society wants them to. It means that their voice, opinion, ideas, etc…are not as valued as adults.
Some of you may think this is totally outdated and people don’t think that way anymore – but the reality is that children are still expected to “behave”.
I find the word "behave" so loaded. Children are expected to "behave" in a way that is basically not disruptive to others (and by others... I mean adults). And, parents are expected to make their children "behave" so that others don't think that they are terrible parents! The problem is that society’s expectations of children are based on how adults behave (and let’s face it - not all adults). We want children to be polite, calm, reasonable, logical, patient, kind, quiet etc... Children are just not built that way. Children do not possess logical, rational thought. They start to develop some reasoning skills after the age of 3 years old, but until then, expecting them to have the ability to “behave” on command is just not developmentally possible.
Being a child should really be the most carefree time in their lives, but they are bombarded with rules and expectations from the time they are born.
How many times do we ask new parents, “Is your child sleeping through the night?” As if somehow this is the mark of a good baby, or at least a good parent. Children are not built to sleep through the night, they have needs for food, attachment and survival that adults no longer have (or have been taught to ignore). Yet - we put that expectation on them from the time they enter the world, because we forget what it means to be a child. We expect them to sleep for 8 hours a night, because that’s what adults do. Children don’t sleep like adults, because they have different sleep needs. And when they don’t sleep like us our response is to sleep train them – because being heard is not always on our priority lists when it comes to children’s needs, especially when we are tired.
And that’s just the beginning.
Children need to sleep like an adult, eat like an adult, work like an adult, play like an adult, sing like an adult, draw like an adult …I could go on for pages.
It is not ok to eat with your hands, wake up several times in the night, have limited concentration, play without rules, sing out of tune, and colour out of the lines (and if they do, they are often labelled with some kind of “disorder”).
No wonder children are having tantrums by the time they are 2 years old! They have had two full years of rules, expectations and reminders.
You will often see young children “behaving badly” or as I like to call it, “behaving like children” in places like the grocery store, the mall, school, daycare, visiting grandparents etc…because the expectations on them are so high. These places have so many rules and children are not “rule based”. As parents, we want so desperately for our children to “behave” and not cause problems, because we will be judged if they are disruptive. We are so desperate that we look for any kind of "strategy" that will keep our children quiet and obedient. Perhaps the only strategy we really need is to allow our children to be heard? Give them a voice and show them that what they say, feel and think really matters. Instead of teaching them to silence themselves in order to meet society's unrealistic expectations.
Ironically, children are actually built to be heard! That’s why they cry. It is built right into them as a means for survival. Babies would cry if they sensed danger and someone would pick them up and protect them – so they wouldn’t get eaten (http://www.todaysparent.com/baby/baby-development/understand-your-babys-cries). There doesn’t seem to be too many animals around these days trying to eat our children, but that survival instinct is still quite strong. Babies cry for all kinds of reasons, but most of them involve getting our attention for a need that they have. And, as they grow, they only seem to get louder.
So, here is a very important point that I would like to make…ready? Children are disruptive! They are loud, demanding, rambunctious, hyper, fun, silly, playful, inventive, curious, energetic, talkative, imaginative, intelligent, and wonderful.
No, not all children are all of these things. But as a society, if we fully understood the nature of a child – perhaps we would become a more “child friendly” place.
Sometimes I resent the fact that I have to find “child friendly” places to bring my daughter. Shouldn’t the world be “child friendly”? We discriminate against children and parents all the time.
If we want to eat out at a restaurant with our child, we are very limited. We are mostly limited to places that are very unhealthy – because apparently that’s what it means to be “child friendly”. I can see why everyone ends up at MacDonald’s with their children! No one stares at you with that “children should be seen and not heard” look. Your children can run around and play in the indoor playground, while you watch them and attempt to enjoy your meal.
Wouldn’t it be nice if fancier restaurants had indoor play areas for children? I can just see myself ordering my salmon on a cedar plant with mixed vegetables while peering through the glass to make sure our daughter is still having fun. Not just an indoor play area, but a whole different mentality toward children and families. That would be nice.
Because we want children to “behave”, we are constantly pushing them toward maturity and adulthood. For a child, it seems like their ultimate goal is to become an adult. What’s the hurry?
Unfortunately, we are in a hurry, because it is easier to manage children when they meet society’s expectations. And, as I stated earlier – those expectations are to be calm, polite and reasonable (among others).
I recently looked up the origin of the phrase “children need to be seen and not heard” and it actually dates back to the 15th century (and was about both women and children being silent and submissive – but don’t get me started on that! ask.com). We have progressed in so many ways since then, but we have so much further to go when it comes to respecting children for who they are.
So, in the meantime – parents are stuck eating in unhealthy restaurants (or not going out at all), and dealing with the disapproving stares of those with limited perceptions of children whenever their child “acts like a child” (loud, rambunctious, demanding etc…).
I am not saying that children should not have any rules or expectations – that would be unrealistic and wouldn’t help them become strong members of society. But, the very society that we want them to be a part of doesn’t seem to honour them and their differences.
So, the next time you see a child running around the grocery store not listening to their parent, or a child screaming in a restaurant – don’t give a disapproving stare. Just look the other way and pretend you don’t notice – give that parent as much privacy as you can manage. Because raising humans is hard enough without trying to meet unrealistic expectations. Help parents honour their children by giving them room to sort out life’s challenges - remember that it is a process. Children will grow and develop into healthy, strong, compassionate, productive members of society if we give them the chance to be seen and heard.