My post, Performing Monkeys, generated several comments that stimulated more of my own thoughts about the topic of children as entertainment. I described the adult reactions in that video of Sydney testifying before her school board as “amused condescension”.
Erik Haugsjaa, a Sudbury Valley School parent and blogger, posted a link to my post on his blog, and wrote, “It’s hard to resist amused condescension, but it’s the right thing to do. It’s powerful to treat kids as equals.” In an email exchange with me, he also observed that because kids are cute, there is probably a biological impulse for adults to want to take care of the little ones.
I agree with him that adults are often delighted and indulgent with little kids, even ones that are not related to them–even the little ones of different species as the thousands of cute animal videos on youtube demonstrate. (The desire to care for the small and cute is not limited to humans. On the internet, you can find several examples of mammals and birds caring for the young of other species.) Adults also tend to give little kids more slack and time for play and discovery, than they allow older kids and adults.
My concession to re-posting cute animal photos
A friend commented that he felt annoyed watching the video of Sydney’s speech, because he figured the adults were not even listening closely to her speech, knowing they didn’t have to pay attention to one of the “powerless”. Although adult affection and delight was clearly in the mix of reactions, I believe what my friend noticed was also there.
Adult affection and care for children is a wonderful, necessary thing. What too often happens is that we get stuck at children’s cuteness and the spectacle of them doing something for the first time. Maybe because many of us weren’t taken seriously when we were children, we have not developed the skills to attend to the serious business that children engage in as they figure out something new, navigate their own and others’ complex emotions, make sense of the surrounding culture, and work to develop meaningful relationships with other children and adults.
It takes conscious effort to see the cute kid in front of us and also observe with curiosity, listen deeply and interact with her or him as a human being rather than as an entertaining (or annoying) object. Children can feel the difference in the quality of attention. They want to engage as equal human beings by sharing their thoughts, their passions, their accomplishments, their wit, their observations. Many respond with enthusiasm because so few adults are really interested in them as whole people.
It is a rewarding experience to really interact with a child and feel the fullness of that person responding. Words are not necessary. A smile and a gaze that communicates, “I see you and am curious about the person you are,” is something every one of us needs and deserves, whatever our age.