If my perceptions are correct, there seems to be a growing sentiment (perhaps typical of each older generation) that today’s youth are needlessly and excessively coddled and “wussified” (to use the kinder terminology). But the apparently prevailing notion that kids nowadays are excessively spoiled is actually dangerously overstated, according to a recent article in AlterNet by Paul L. Thomas, a doctor of education and long-time teacher.
After recalling a few anecdotes regarding personal or observed mistreatment of kids (mostly in the context of school), he makes the following point:
A day or so ago, I received an email from Alfie Kohn about his new book, The Myth of the Spoiled Child. I noticed it was similar to a book I am co-editing, Pedagogies of Kindness and Respect: On the Lives and Education of Children. I also noted that our perspectives on children—on how parents, teachers, and society treat children—appears to be a minority view.
I have been mulling, or more likely stewing, about this for some time: What makes adults—even the ones who choose to spend their lives with children—so damned negative and hateful about those children? That is the source of my palpable anger at the “grit,”“no excuses,” and “zero tolerance” narratives and policies. I grew up and live in the South, where the default attitude toward children remains that they are to be seen and not heard, that a child’s role is to do as she/he is told. If a child crosses those lines, then we must teach her/him a lesson, show her/him who is boss—rightfully, we are told, by hitting that child: spare the rod spoil the child. I find that same deficit view of children is not some backwoods remnant of the ignorant South; it is the dominant perspective on children throughout the U.S.
As Barbara Kingsolver explains in “Everybody’s Somebody’s Baby”:
>>For several months I’ve been living in Spain, and while I have struggled with the customs office, jet lag, dinner at midnight and the subjunctive tense, my only genuine culture shock has reverberated from this earthquake of a fact: People here like kids. They don’t just say so, they do. Widows in black, buttoned-down c.e.o.’s, purple-sneakered teen-agers, the butcher, the baker, all have stopped on various sidewalks to have little chats with my daughter. Yesterday, a taxi driver leaned out his window to shout “ Hola, guapa !” My daughter, who must have felt my conditioned flinch, looked up at me wide-eyed and explained patiently, “I like it that people think I’m pretty.”
With a mother’s keen myopia, I would tell you, absolutely, my daughter is beautiful enough to stop traffic. But in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, I have to confess, so is every other person under the height of one meter. Not just those who agree to be seen and not heard. When my daughter gets cranky in a restaurant (and really, what do you expect at midnight?), the waiters flirt and bring her little presents and nearby diners look on with that sweet, wistful gleam of eye that before now I have only seen aimed at the dessert tray. Children are the meringues and eclairs of this culture. Americans, it seems to me now, sometimes regard children as a sort of toxic-waste product: a necessary evil, maybe, but if it’s not their own they don’t want to see it or hear it or, God help us, smell it.<<
I’ve often noticed — and frankly even related with — the contradictory ways in which we regard children: they’re cute and enlivening on the one hand, but also irritating and burdensome on the other. Their easily exploitable and powerless status also makes them a tempting target for venting one’s frustration or sense of inadequacy, which perhaps explains why children — along with women and the elderly — are frequently the victims of abuse in households and care centers.
Thomas also notes how the overall negative treatment of children intersects with racist and classist sentiments as well:
A child is not a small adult, not a blank slate to be filled with our “adult weariness,” or a broken human that must be repaired. It is also true that children are not angels; they are not pure creatures suited to be set free to find the world on their own. Seeing children through deficit or ideal lenses does not serve them—or anyone—well.
>>Within the U.S. culture there is a schizophrenia around kids—we worship young adulthood in popular media, but seem to hate children—that is multiplied exponentially by a lingering racism and classism that compounds the deficit view of childhood. Nowhere is this more evident than in the research showing how people view children of color:
Asked to identify the age of a young boy that committed a felony, participants in a study routinely overestimated the age of black children far more than they did white kids. Worse: Cops did it, too… The correlation between dehumanization and use of force becomes more significant when you consider that black boys are routinely estimated to be older than they are… The less the black kids were seen as human, the less they were granted “the assumption that children are essentially innocent.” And those officers who were more likely to dehumanize black suspects overlapped with those who used more force against them.<<
In the enduring finger-pointing dominant in the U.S.—blaming the poor for their poverty, blaming racial minorities for the burdens of racism, blaming women for the weight of sexism—we maintain a gaze that blinds us to ourselves, and allows us to ignore that in that gaze are reflections of the worst among us.
Why do the police sweep poor African American neighborhoods and not college campuses in search of illegal drugs? Why do we place police in the hallways of urban high schools serving mostly poor African American and Latino students, demanding “zero tolerance”? Why are “grit” narratives and “no excuses” policies almost exclusively targeting high-poverty, majority-minority schools (often charter schools with less public oversight)?
Here’s the basic crux of Thomas’ point.
Children are not empty vessels to be filled, blank hard drives upon which we save the data we decide they should have. Nor are children flawed or wild; they do not need us to repair or break them. Neither are they to be coddled or worshipped. They are children, and they are all our children. Yes, there are lessons to be taught, lessons to be learned. But those driven by deficit or idealized views are corrupted and corrupting lessons. Each and every child—as all adults—deserves to have her/his basic dignity respected, first, and as adults charged with the care of any child, our initial question before we do anything with or to a child must be about ourselves. In 31 years of teaching, I can still see and name the handful of students I mis-served in my career, like Billy above. Those faces and names today serve as my starting point: with any child, first do no harm.
What do you think?