People often forget or lack the empathy to realize that children are human beings too, just smaller. As a result, children are treated disrespectfully, humiliated, controlled, manipulated, and traumatized in a variety of other ways. In this article, I won’t talk about harsher forms of abuse that occur but rather will specifically address two main forms of how children are disrespected in regular interactions on a basic human level.
If you are a relatively healthy person, you treat your fellow human beings with respect. You meet someone, you say hello, you smile back, and so on. Now, since children are smaller than us and have much less life experience, it is easy to forget that they are human beings deserving decent treatment, too—one might argue even more than adults do. And yet, more often than not, children are engaged with as if they are fundamentally inferior.
Such treatment can be separated into two categories:
Scorn. Engaging with a child in a scorning manner means treating them as if they are fundamentally inferior and therefore deserve overt sneering, humiliation, condescension, or putting down. Moreover, scorn includes being emotionally or even physically overridden, or simply being ignored and isolated.
Patronizing. Patronizing a child means engaging with them in a seemingly nice manner, but actually looking down on them, belittling them, infantilizing them, and otherwise treating them as if they are less capable than they actually are.
Let’s examine a situation to illustrate these behaviors.
I have noticed that in Canada, where I currently live, it is somewhat common for children to help their parents at work. I have seen a few children working at a food court, in a restaurant, or in a family shop. Now, they are not “working” like adults do, but they are standing by their parents and learning to do basic tasks: work the cash register, take an order, serve food, and so on.
So you come in to get food and you see a 9-12 year old child wanting to take your order. There are three ways how to approach them. One, with scorn: getting angry and telling them that they don’t know what they are doing and that you want real customer service, not some goofy, incompetent kid. Two, with patronizing: saying that it’s so cute that such a little boy/girl is trying to take up on an adult task. And three, treating them like you would treat anybody else: being polite, fair, and responsive, saying hello and thank you, not being overly harsh or overly sweet.
The Value of Treating Children with Respect
When a child is treated disrespectfully, it affects their self-esteem, which later results in self-esteem issues. It also impacts their trust, which then results in trust issues. There are numerous other, life-long problems that stem from mistreating a child that I have already addressed in other articles. When treated scornfully or patronizingly, children experience dire consequences. And then they grow up into wounded adults.
Yet, there are many benefits from engaging with children in a respectful manner. When you engage a child as a fellow human being who deserves respect, you are modelling kindness and decency—for the child and for other adults. It helps the child feel more competent, curious, social, and realistic in whatever context you are engaging them in. It also helps you be a decent, empathetic human being and strengthen your ability to treat others respectfully.
Personally, I always try to treat children kindly and fairly. If a child waves at me, I always wave back. If a child looks at me, I smile at them and often wave and say hello. If they come to me and ask me about what I am doing, I answer. I ask them questions. I try to talk in an age appropriate language but I don’t treat them like they are idiots or a burden. If they want to participate in what I am doing, I usually gladly invite them. If they ask for help, I help them, without treating them like they are invalids. And guess what, if you are nice to them, they are nice to you.
Because of my perspective and behavior towards children, and because I usually look friendly and approachable, there have been many times in my life that children have approached me, waved at me, started a conversation with me, or wanted to play with me. Here, curiosity is encouraged, empathy is exchanged, and it is a rewarding experience.
Treating a child with respect and kindness shows them that people are not dangerous; that their feelings, thoughts and preferences matter; that if you have a question or a problem you can ask for help and look for a solution together; that it is preferable to treat each other respectfully, even if there is a power disparity; that even if someone is multiple times your size it doesn’t mean you are inferior or helpless; that it is okay not to know something and not to be perfect.
Childism—a prejudice against children on the ground of a belief that they are property and can, or even should, be controlled, enslaved, or removed to serve adult needs—is still extremely prevalent in society. However, it doesn’t have to be this way. You can start changing it, by changing how YOU engage with children. Believe me, they will remember, and you will feel better about yourself, too.
Have a child-friendly day,
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