A New Vision of Children and Childhood

CompetentHumanBeingsWhen I began my journey as a parent, I was determined to avoid the mistakes of my parents and my own childhood. I was determined to create freedom of expression (especially emotions) in my home. I wanted the children in my life to feel safe, loved, and free.

In spite of my intentions, I fell back into patterns of behavior that were based on my childhood experiences. I would have never described myself as a controlling parent until I experienced two important critical incidents with the oldest child in my life that opened my eyes to my controlling parenting. And yet the evidence (in the form of a videotape) was clear. I was a controlling and domineering parent.

If I go back to those early experiences as a parent, I realize that I engaged in control and domination from a belief that my control was necessary to ensure that Martel and Greyson (the second child in my life) would be able to interact in ways that would help them successfully navigate the world (both as children and as adults).

I had internalized a view of children as adults-in-training and thought this was my responsibility as a parent. Despite the common belief that control is necessary to a child’s development into a socially competent adult, there is much research available on the harm of control on a child’s development.

As parents letting go of control, we can often struggle with how to care for children and help meet their needs without controlling them.

The balance of providing care without moving into control can be challenging, especially when we believe that a child’s health might be at stake. With food, media access, or issues of personal hygiene, our fears about future negative outcomes if children make choices that we don’t agree with can be hard to overcome.

Letting go of control doesn’t mean we abdicate our responsibility to care for the children in our lives.

My goal is for us, as parents, to critically examine what we’re afraid of. Through this process of self-examination we can ask ourselves questions that challenge our automatic thoughts and reactions.

Is it really true that if a child eats sugar, I’m setting her up to be obese and unhealthy? If I don’t teach a child to say “thank you,” do I really know that she will become a rude and impolite person? Do I really know that whatever behavior I dislike in a child today will result in negative outcomes in the future?

If fear about bad things happening to children in the future is our motivator for the actions we take, we can easily slip from caring for children to controlling them. When we control others and operate out of fear, we’re less connected and less respectful, and love is diminished.

I advocate for liberating ourselves from this paradigm of control and domination because it fundamentally limits our potential as human beings.

Our choices are narrowed when we are afraid and when we believe that people should behave only in certain prescribed ways.

Our creativity is limited and our capacity for growth and learning is stunted.

If we can abandon the idea that children are adults-in-training, we can also move beyond the desire to control their behaviors out of fear. The new view of children and childhood that many sociologists began to explore at the end of the 20th century was the idea that children are competent social beings, though different from adults.(1)

When researchers began to closely examine children’s behavior from this perspective they found that children operated from a nuanced and subtle understanding of social relationships and social ordering.(2)

Socialization is taking place in children, but it’s because they are already competent social beings that they have the ability to be socialized.

This new view of children and childhood also looks at the traditional adult-child relationship as a social construction that serves the broader social system of inequality and creates unequal relationships between adults and children.

The belief that children are adults-in-training necessitates that adults have power and control over children in order to ensure proper socialization.

Parenting TransformBut if we see children as competent in their own right, our responsibility becomes focused on how we can care for—rather than control— them.

Our relationships are recast in a more mutual paradigm, a partnership in which we can learn from each other while attending to children’s unique needs from a place of respect.

This change in how we view children also shifts the ways we view their behavior.

If children are merely adults-in-training, we see them as reckless and at risk, and we may disapprove of their behavior.

If we believe that children aren’t able to reason and are incompetent, then we more easily reject their ideas and thought processes.

Acting from these stereotypes, especially when they operate outside of our conscious thought processes—as stereotypes generally do—can create or worsen tension and conflict and increase mistrust.

If, instead, we see children as the competent and complex human beings that they are, we can begin to see their behavior beyond the polarity of negative and positive. We can begin to see the nuances of who they are and how they see the world.

Our role becomes that of a facilitator. We help them to access the world in the ways they desire, while providing information as needed—all the while learning with them.

A strategy I have encountered that is useful in visualizing this new way of being with children is to imagine that children are beloved adult visitors from another country who don’t know our customs or ways. How would we treat such a visitor?

We would give them guidance and support without shame or judgment. We would accept their mistakes, celebrate their accomplishments with them, and cherish the experience of being with them as they explored and gained mastery of our culture.

This is a new vision of childhood that we can make a reality.

(1) and (2) Doris Buhler-Niederberger, “Introduction: Childhood Sociology, Defining the State of the Art and Ensuring Reflection,” Current Sociology, 2010 58: 159-160.

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