A Respectful Approach to Child-Rearing
As a child, it always left me frustrated when my parents or anyone else called something that I did "cute." I specifically remember one time as a five-year-old when the host of a Shabbat dinner asked me to share a devar torah based on what I learned in kindergarten that week. Although I was embarrassed at first, I reluctantly began to share my thoughts. At that point, a couple of guests began to fawn over the way I spoke. This just encouraged my shame, and I promptly decided to stop speaking. Why should I bother to share what I have to say if nobody will take me seriously? This sort of experience consistently left me embarrassed. I remember specific times when I felt like I had something valuable to add to a conversation, albeit at a very young age, and all I got in response were compassionate smiles and nods. Adults seemed to ignore the content of what I was saying, and focused on the way I was delivering it. Looking back, Maimonides' words, "Accept the truth, no matter its source" ring especially true.
The Christian-influenced notion of "Original Sin" may have something to do with how we look at children. By taking the biblical creation story at its literal word, people get the idea that it’s an unquestioned fact before one develops a sense of sexual awareness, they are necessarily pure. It is much more beneficial and meaningful to see the story as a psychological allegory, for how human beings make mistakes and use their judgment improperly. This is something that adults and children do equally, and places no burden on parents to keep their children sheltered and free from the outside world. By seeing kids as our equals, we give them a better chance at practicing for the "real world" before they are thrown in at full force.
If someone asked you a question while you were a child, and asked it again at your current age, would the gist of your opinion have changed drastically? While you might use longer words and more articulate phrasing, the basic principles that form your outlook on life are usually in place early on in life. At least, this has been my experience. Once I reached a certain level of maturity deemed acceptable by society, adults all of a sudden started to consider what I had to say as a peer. But this just seems so arbitrary. Of course we get a kick out of how cute kids can be and the unique way they put things. But we should put the pleasure we get out of them on hold for the sake of their own sense of self-worth. As we all know, children are highly impressionable, and experiences that leave them feeling inadequate can stick with them for the rest of their lives.
It's a common occurrence during conversations among adults, that if a child asks about the topic at hand, a parent will respond along the lines of, " We're just talking about adult stuff." I think this is a serious mistake. Children have the tendency to take something that can be written up into a highly technical essay and capture the essence of a message with simple language. By going out of our way to invite kids into our conversations, and explaining to them the basic issues at stake in simple language, we can give their critical thinking skills a favorably early jumpstart. And not only would they be the sole beneficiaries, but by articulating ideas in ways that a child can grasp, we sharpen our own views at the same time. Nobody will expect a child to comprehend a discussion about theoretical physics, but I am confident that most conversations can be boiled down to simple and universal principles.
Treating kids in a more empathetic way also means we shouldn't engage in unnecessary praise, constantly letting children know how good they are at a single thing. This might seem counter-intuitive at first. Isn’t it the epitome of compassion to help other feel good about themselves? I'm not advocating withholding compliments from kids when they are proud of something they've done. That's just downright cruel. But endless praise probably does more harm than good in the long-run. Children need to be prepared for the fact that later in life people won't take it for granted that they are special snowflakes; it's critical to earn respect.
The objectification of children expresses itself in many forms in contemporary society. It is a common weekly sight on Shabbat to see parents dressing their kids up as carbon copies of themselves, making sure their 'family reputation' is upheld. The stereotype of the 'soccer mom' who vicariously lives through their child to resolve their own insecurities unfortunately seems to play out accurately in real life. If children don't end up perfectly reflecting their parents' worldview, it shouldn't be considered a tragedy. This doesn't mean we should avoid disciplining children, but if they make relatively innocuous choices that cause neither themselves or others harm, we shouldn't feel obligated to police their every move.
A non-patronizing view of children is the logical follow up to the gradual decline in recent decades of child corporal punishment. Are children any less created in the image of God that their rights to not be struck by another are revoked? If we apply the golden rule to children in one area, then it should apply across the board consistently.
Instead of viewing children as angelic creatures that need to be protected from impurity at all costs, we should see them as sensitive and fully aware human beings with infinite potential. It is critical that they see their parents as peers who are fully invested in them, and aren't determined to fit them into a pre-prepared box. Don't take my word as a parent, a department in which I have zero experience. Consider my words as coming from a young adult with vivid, and relatively recent childhood experiences.