When are we going to stop treating children like little adults? Not only do we dress them like miniature adults, we use adult rules for their behavior, as if they can understand our logic. Now we are handcuffing children because we don’t know a better way to handle a difficult behavior situation in school. This has got to stop. We have allowed ourselves to operate in plastic bubbles that keep out good sense, compassion and empathy, thinking that that will protect us legally. We must be stronger. We must be braver. If we have to operate without common sense, then we have allowed all common sense to be de-valued. We might as well not have any. We have heard of schools and municipalities arresting and handcuffing children before and we were astonished and horrified. AND IT IS STILL HAPPENING.
We parents are the ones who must teach our children, but now, too often, we are handing off teaching our children the ins-and-outs of how to behave to the Power of the Rule: an established school rule, a law, a local ordinance, an “Its-out-of-our- hands” mentality that was established by adults, for adults—but, what the heck, let’s now apply it to our children since they are so unruly.
Now, I have no education in child psychology or adult psychology, but I do have a theory, one that I intuited after living in a post-Columbine Denver and it is simple: We are ignoring our children. We are expecting them to behave like adults. We do not take responsibility for raising them. We do not respect them enough to acknowledge them as sensitive young individuals in their most vulnerable years. If we did we would be giving billions to schools and daycare providers to help bring them up in the absolute best design and environment that they all deserve.
My theory on how we are treating our children began with my observations while shopping. Several years ago, shopping at any store was not so noisy. There was less screaming and racket going on. It was often a peaceful endeavor and I looked forward to it. When my daughter was a baby and I had to bring her with me, I’d chat with her the whole time to keep her occupied, explaining what I was doing, what I was looking at, what color the box was, what it smelled like. It was a learning experience and we had fun. Sometimes I would push her around in the cart real fast, which made her shriek with laughter. One day, after a race down the cereal aisle, a man approached me and said, with a twinkle in his eyes, “You are having WAY too much fun with that baby!” We did have fun, and that was the point.
Now, it is painful for me to go to stores like Target and listen to the children crying in the background. Hardly anyone notices or cares. No one listens anymore. No one hears them. Too often no one, not even their parents, responds. To me it is heartbreaking to see a little one pushed aimlessly around a store while the mother traipses around, oblivious to the noise emitted from her baby, as if that is what you do. Something made her cry. She is crying for a reason. After all, these are humans who cannot speak. As parents we must try to empathize and understand, not ignore and hope it goes away. Very few parents address their children’s wails or moans, even as infants. Instead, they just push them around and ignore them. No cuddling, no trying to see what’s wrong, no eye contact. Even I know they are teaching their babies to not expect any attention, not to expect any help, and not have any hope of being heard. These babies are deprived of basic nurturing and they will most likely carry that sense of hopelessness with them into life.
When we lived in Denver I saw this more frequently. I used to blame it on the fact that Denver skews young; those moms seem to have kids younger than I am used to in Chicago. But, in Chicago the pitiful wails continue too, albeit on a slightly lesser scale, but there is no doubt that babies are ignored in massive quantities everywhere, to their detriment physically and emotionally.
Here’s a typical example of what I’m talking about: A couple months ago I came out of a dressing room to find a babbling child under a year old had managed to weasel himself out of his mother’s red cart and stand up on the seat. He was wobbling back and forth the way babies do when they can’t walk yet and I caught him just as he pitched forward out of the cart. His mother was several feet away looking elsewhere, his grandfather was seated two feet in the other direction looking at the floor. THIS HAPPENS ALL THE TIME! I feel like I’m on Falling Baby Patrol because I so often have to alert mothers that their child is ready to take a header onto a hard tile floor.
To be ignored is to be rejected, and I believe this plays out through children’s lives in multiple ways to get attention and in multiple ways to handle the stress of rejection. And now, just when life’s stress levels cannot get any higher, when children and babies cannot process their stress in ways adults deem appropriate, we label these children criminals and juvenile delinquents and wrap their little wrists in hard metal clamps. We treat them like criminals and make them stay overnight in jail cells, or we throw them out of school, separate them from their friends, and shame them. We give them our worst. We treat them as if they are the worst beings on the planet.
We are forgetting that these children are the products of ourselves. We made them. They reflect us, yet we still ignore them. We are unwilling to face the fact that these babies are new little people, coming into a hard, bright world and the transition is sharp, noisy and sometimes ugly. And stressed out babies can grow up to be stressed, alienated, misunderstood children and young adults. Not everyone can make that transition smoothly.
No amount of rule-making will solve this problem. Adding another inch of forms to sign regarding expected behavior in school will not make this go away. Those papers are just proof that we don’t know what we are doing. That we have lost faith and compassion.
So please, for the sake of all children everywhere, watch your baby. Talk to your baby. Look at your child. Respond to her. Pick her up when she cries, even if you don’t know the reason. They might not either, and it is certain that they are not going to tell you. They are probably just tired of shopping and need to go home. After all, everybody needs a nap every now and then.