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How Can We Treat Children With Respect?

How often have we been offended, as adults, by the well meaning and kind-hearted person who, as we were leaving their shop, offered the words for all to hear “Thanks, Sweetie.”  As most of us shrink and try to regain our composure, the common reaction may be to think to oneself,  “Well, first of all, that’s not my name.  And, secondly, I am not your Sweetie!”

The fact is, even though the shopkeeper’s words weren’t meant to be disrespectful, they are.  And this is not just because they’re overly familiar, but because they sound like the speaker is addressing someone inferior.  You can now imagine the same emotions that a child might go through when the well-intentioned adult unwittingly commits the same offense.

For instance, how would a five year-old, who is the youngest of three, respond to being proclaimed proudly by the mother as her “baby?”  In all probability all the child really wants is to be as big as his older siblings.  Similarly, the middle child, perceived as being neither as bright as his older sister nor as athletic as his younger brother would most likely prefer not to be compared to his siblings either, and certainly not those specific merits.  And of course, the oldest would just as soon prefer not being the “benchmark” for anyone.  She would naturally prefer to go about her life without feeling the pressure of having to keep one step ahead of her younger brothers.

All of which brings us to the importance of dealing with children as we ourselves might wish to be treated — with respect, which is not to say, however, that we should treat a five year-old as our equal.  Indeed, he is not an equal mentally, physically, nor emotionally.  He does, however, need objective, non-partial rules and interaction from which he can grow and develop his decision-making skills as well as his sense of self and his place in society.

What should be illustrated, though, is that treating children, and all people, with respect can range from how we address them (“Honey, can you get the glue for me?”) to the way in which we compare them to others (“Freddy ran the fastest of everyone.”)

As another example, we might ask ourselves if it is respectful to tell a child his artwork is beautiful when we can’t even determine ourselves what it is the child drew.  And that may have been the intent.  The child could have simply been painting in order to experience the process of making the brush strokes on the paper and seeing what happens or, possibly, to see how the colors mix when he paints over the same piece of paper time after time.  The objective may not have been to make something “beautiful” or, even, to make anything at all.  The goal may have just simply been to see what happens “…when I do this.”

We realize that most often it is the process that the child is going through that is important, and not necessarily the product.  If, in a similar example, we focus on the product we may end up making the mistake of calling what the child has painted a dog rather than the horse that was intended.  Then, not only have we offended the child but we have most likely lost his trust as well.  Few things can be so devastating, infuriating even, to a child than someone else not being able to see what is to him so obvious, not to mention so time consuming to have made.  This experience can be quite disheartening for a child.

A final thought to consider is that the child has already drawn his own opinion of whether or not his work is “good.”  By praising a child’s acts or works an adult is actually passing judgement on the child.  Perhaps, another way to handle a similar situation would be to simply ask the child how he feels about what he has done.  If the child is either unable or chooses not to explain his thoughts you may want to objectively point out some of the attributes of his work, “I see that you used a lot of red in you painting”, thereby acknowledging his efforts without passing judgement on what he has done.

In the end, the child will gain greater self-satisfaction by performing to his abilities and, hopefully, will have enjoyed the process while he was at it.  And this sure beats trying to perform to someone else’s expectations.

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