goddamnit, learn how to use the pickle-fork!; or, “socialization” isn’t always so awesome

How then will a child learn social manners? Can we trust the child to develop and mature in her own time, the way we trusted her to learn to walk and to talk? Why are we in a rush to have children behave like adults before they are adults? – from “How Children Learn Manners”, c. Naomi Aldort at naomialdort.com

Recently at a Yahoo group I’m a member of the discussion turned to children and our efforts to teach them “manners”. A group member posted an anecdote that was instantly familiar:

I think our responses to our children often frame how people view them. I went out for a meal with some friends and relatives. We had our 2 children, ages 3 and 6. Another woman had hers, ages 8 and 4.

Our children played with their food, put vinegar on their pizza, got down from their places and went round talking to other members of the group, blew bubbles in their drinks and played with the balloons. None of their behaviour was loud or wild and they were certainly keeping themselves from being bored. I was relaxed with it. No-one from other tables even seemed to notice.

The other mum was feeling much more agitated and insisted on eating “correctly”, not leaving the table, and saying please and thank you. She was quite loud and vocal in telling them off for misbehaving. She obviously wanted people to know that she was trying to discipline her children and teach them right from wrong. Unfortunately all I could see happening was her drawing attention to her kids’ behaviour and framing it as bad. Consequently people were tutting and rolling their eyes and her children became more and more irritable and squirmy.

We were seated quite far apart and I’m not sure she noticed what was going on with mine but I certainly did with hers. I didn’t feel judgmental but it really brought home to me that often people see our children through our reaction to them; yet often we respond to our children out of fear of how others will respond to them.

This brief story resonated strongly with me. Recently I was in a similar setting when several friends and our children met at a restaurant to eat together.  I was struck by a difference between two families, an experience similar to the example above.  One family did not restrict their children: the kids crawled on the floor, got up from the table, climbed around and laughed and played.  The other family required their children to sit still, keep voices low, speak in a “mannered” tone, engage in adult table manners, and refrain from play.  The children were all about the same ages, five to eight.

From my end of the table, the family engaged in a high degree of “socializing” efforts looked miserable.  The parents were tense and busy, scarcely having time to enjoy the delicious food.  Their children’s eyes were downcast and muted and there was an air of strain about the group.  In contrast, the children who were running around had a fine time, one which was incidentally non-disruptive.  They did not once break anything, get in anyone’s way, or fight.  Their parents kept an eye on them in a relaxed fashion but ate their meal and took part in adult conversation.  The free children enjoyed themselves immensely.  People often tend to think of children as “loud” but I observed the active children’s voices, raised in laughter and imaginative play, had no more actual volume than a neighboring male diner on a cell phone.

The differences between families and experiences was quite striking.  I know which parental model I want to model myself on, even if I don’t always live up to my standards.

Of course, it’s not just a matter of personal resources and know-how in raising children without the fearful cling to tight constraints.  It is brave of my friends who allow their child the freedom to, you know, be childlike, because since becoming a parent I’ve found many in my peer group (middle-class white Americans) discourage children’s expression, bodily autonomy, authenticity, interests, and activity.  In fact children who aren’t behaving according to the soul of adult decorum often get glared at, spoken to rudely, or – even more commonly – silently resented.

The internet age assists us in painting things in black and white.  People resent different parenting styles (or their interpretations of them, often erroneous) and quickly want to blame a host of society’s ills on these perceptions of difference and wrongness.  People direct their fears, angers, and frustrations in snarky or mean-spirited internet comments or incensed letters to the newspaper editor about “kids today” and their horrid parents.  What a loss, since if and when we choose to open discussion with those around us we stand to learn so much from one another.  Rarely in public have I seen one adult say to another openly, “I’m uncomfortable with how much your children are climbing around! ” or, “Your parenting techniques are challenging me! We really do things differently!” and then – important! – allowing the other adult an opportunity to respond (your particular language and conversational ice breaker may vary). The few times I have seen an adult brave and open enough to initiate this conversation a wonderful conversation often ensues.  These dialogues have the power to instruct, inspire, empower, challenge, and unite us in community and commonality of goals and needs.  Most parents love their children very much and want to do what’s right for their family and the larger society as well.

Sadly, these conversations are often avoided.  In a seemingly “civil” society where such things are often not discussed instead I feel the “vibe” (yes, this is a real thing), see the glares, hear the passive-aggressive comments.  I do not always run across this unpleasantness when we go out in the world, but it is a constant drumbeat nevertheless – displayed not that long ago when my son spontaneously engaged in some athleticism on top of our family car.  Conversely, when my kids are “good” I am treated to the compliments and erroneous assumptions I’m raising my kids “right” – i.e. with authoritarian discipline.  When my kid are “good” and their behavior commented on (as it often is) I find it funny.  I can honestly say we are not an autocratic household and we move further from authoritarian discipline every day.  My children are not punished nor badgered by coercive techniques disguised as “loving discipline”.  Yet they are turning out well-behaved enough, considerate, direct, and they function well in society.  And despite our “radical” parenting they are very normal; in fact they are more likely to be cited as standing out for their directness and competence than anything else.  And perhaps most importantly for many parents who are afraid to lift restrictions, they are not the chandelier-swinging, sociopathic Lord of the Flies monkey-children so many believe – and want to believe – is the inevitable result of what is sneered at as “permissiveness” or “unparenting”.

I am glad to have seen the errors of my previous ways.  When my children were younger I worried very much about “manners”.  I prompted them (“Say ‘please’,” or “Say ‘thank you’!”) and I felt embarassed when they did something socially-deemed as rude or naughty – like yell, or grab a toy from another child, or…  hell, that’s about it.  I mean how much trouble can a two-year old get up to? Fer crying out loud.

It was a false construct and a rather tribally-defined one.  If everyone else is fretting over their toddler’s need to learn to share, then it’s easy to follow suit.  It’s also easy to exert your will on a small child (at first). In a way my dependence on focussing my children’s behavior on “manners” was an attempt at control (of course!), an addiction to the ego-boost when said child was praised, genuine worry for their future happiness and function in society (understandable), and, sadly, the deep-down buried resentments from my own upbringing – at home and in society at large.  Children are treated as second-class citizens, I see this clearly now. Whatever we consider our spiritual and intellectual leanings regarding peace and force, in our homes so many of us really do behave as if Might Equals Right, and in public other adults – childfree and parents alike – support this concept.

At some point a couple years ago I discovered Naomi Aldort’s article, “How Children Learn Manners” (from which my introductory excerpt hails) and it was one of those brief but life-changing episodes.  In this essay Aldort gently but with rapier-sharp awareness deconstructs what we’re really teaching children when we enforce social niceties both in response to social pressure and in lieu of pursuing authenticity. I can imagine some responses of many who are used to treating children more or less as they were raised (that is, using punishments, lectures in favor of example, and coercion).  Aldort’s writings may bring feelings of amazement, cynicism, beleaguered perceptions of nit-picking (“OK, now I’m not even supposed to tell my kids to say please? What, is parenting totally hands-off?”), irritation, and of course, deep-down fear and resentment.  Yet I am fortunate that when I read this article I saw the wisdom in every point she made, even if at the time I had no idea how I could apply such concepts into practice.

As I alluded to earlier, I was also informed by my own memories of childhood.  I remember resenting the concept one should “make nice” rather than be truthful, that there was a hierarchy of needs that put me – as a child – dead last except where it was convenient for the adults in the room, and that really, some people count less than others.  I remember being shocked and angry that adults would speak to children using words and a tone of voice that most adults would find infuriating or humiliating.  This sense of injustice and injury serves me well now as I have children of my own.  I can learn to do things a new way and watch as joy, authenticity, and yes, consensual living, flows through our home. And I can breathe a teeny sigh of relief to see such changes do not bring end-times chaos, knife-fights, or arson.

It’s no surprise, of course, that the family I mentioned above – with the free-range children – is one I want to spend more time with.  In our culture, it is hard to find an oasis of awareness and respect afforded to all human beings in the room and in the family.  I am comforted to know most families love their children very much, even if their strategies are poor ones.  Surrounding myself with mentors who know another way has become a new organizing principle of my life.

9 Responses