Since my son has been able to talk, we’ve been having conversations about what it’s like to be a child in a world run by adults. In kindergarten, shortly after he learned to write, he started working on a website (I provided technical support) called whatkidsreallywant.com. Although he was soon swept up by other interests and the domain languished for years until it eventually expired, I remember a few of the three or four-sentence posts he created. They were intended to educate adults about children’s needs and emotional experiences. He wrote things like, “Kidz r trien tu bee hapee and groan upps need to lissen mor and be nise.”
It frustrates my son–now eight–that there are so many things he doesn’t get to choose. He doesn’t get to vote. (“Why can’t kids vote? Look who the adults chose.”) Most of the time, he doesn’t get to decide to eat with his hands and certainly not before he’s washed them. He doesn’t get to elect not to wear clothes, socks or shoes, except in the mornings and on weekends. He didn’t get to pick the new city we moved to a couple of years ago. He doesn’t get to select a lot of things about school. He’s been stuck with more than his fair share of non-negotiables from the very beginning. “Adults are polluting the earth and leaving us with the problems they made,” he’s pointed out to me on more than one occasion. “They’re not asking our permission. They’re just being greedy and selfish.”
Trying to Navigate Different Worlds
Our son is pretty content with his life, in general, even with the challenges of being a kid in an adult-run world. But there are bad days and sometimes bad weeks. By nature, he’s opinionated and independent. His lack of freedom makes him angry and sad, at times. He likes being a kid, because “kids are usually a bit more fun than adults.” He doesn’t like being a second-class citizen.
In the arenas where his life plays out, he doesn’t often get to make the important decisions. School starts early and ends later than he’d like, and it’s usually five days a week. There’s homework. He’s expected to attend classes with teachers he doesn’t get to choose or evaluate. At home, I make fish for dinner when he would prefer macaroni and cheese. His allowance is five dollars a week, for now. There are chores he’s expected to complete. He can’t play video games more than forty-five minutes a week. He can’t radically alter his bedtime.
He’s surprisingly gracious about all those constraints. What really hurts him, though, is when adults make assumptions about his character and intentions. He’s often asked me why his teachers, other parents, or strangers assume he’s doing something out of ill-will, or out of a desire to disrupt or disrespect, or because he’s a rambunctious, competitive, in-your-face “boy.” Maybe he is those things, at times, but really, more than anything, he’s trying to be himself. He’s exploring what my friend Meenal Kelkar, a California-based relationship workshop facilitator calls, “the rich fabric of the relational field.” He’s navigating two widely divergent worlds: a world of rule-setting adults and a world of rule-testing kids.
Why Don’t Adults Use Their Words?
Recently, at a Boyscout gathering, he was playing tag in the foyer of a church. People were setting up chairs. An adult man–the father of another kid–came up to him, picked him up off the ground without warning, and said in a stern voice, “Don’t run in here.” The man then put him back down on the ground, turned and walked away. My son was stunned.
“How could someone who doesn’t even know me just pick me up like that, without asking?” he wanted to know. “Why couldn’t he just use his words?”
Adults don’t always ask kids for permission to touch them. They don’t give kids a choice about whether or not they can extort obedience, impose expectations, or dominate them.
Controlling Boys Rather Than Respecting Them
In what way does how we treat our boys factor into how adolescents–and later, grown men–feel about the importance of granting and requesting consent? Children need safe limits, and to gradually learn to think for themselves and make appropriate choices. But when boys gaze out at an adult world year after year that’s far more focused on controlling them than on understanding them, how could boys not grow up confused?
Maybe it’s time we started balancing reactive control with consistent curiosity, and seeking consent for the things we feel entitled to by virtue of our superior power.
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