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The Needs and Rights of Children: Steps to Take

Paul Goodman, in his many talks with young people, used to say that one good way to work for a truly different and better world was to act in their daily lives, as far they could, as if that world existed. What would you do, he would ask them, if the world had become more or less the kind of place you want it to be; how would you live, how would you treat other people? Live that way now, treat them that way now. If something prevents you, try to find a way to deal with that. We can begin to treat children, even the youngest and smallest, wherever we may find them, as we would want everyone to treat them in the society we are trying to make.

We can begin by trying to be courteous to them. This will be very difficult for those who have been taught by experience only to be servile to the strong and rude and bossy toward the weak or those who have learned to think of children as love objects and to treat them as they would a favorite dog or cat. For to be courteous we must first of all respect the other person's dignity and sense of self. We must treat him with a certain formality and reserve until we find out how he would like to be treated. We must respect not just his physical but his emotional life space until he shows us how far into that space he is ready to welcome us. And though being courteous means much more than merely being polite, it means at least that. So we must try to learn to say "Please" or "Excuse Me" or "Thank You" to children, and in the same tone of voice we would use to anyone else. We must not treat a child like a servant and demand from him favors or services that we would not think of asking of someone our own age. Indeed, because he is new in this world, and gets his sense of it from how we be- have toward him, we would do well to show him extra courtesy like the wise parents who said to me once that most of the time they tried to behave toward their then four-year-old son as if he were a very distinguished visitor from a strange and alien civilization, knowing little but eager to learn about how we do things here.

Another small way to be courteous is by respecting and protecting the child's right to privacy. Until the law gives to him as it does to us (at least on paper) the right to be free from arbitrary search and seizure, we should act as if he had that right. This means, among other things, not going into a child's room without asking, and receiving, permission. Many children's rooms have signs saying, "Keep Out!," "Danger," "Absolutely Private," and the like. This fierceness may amuse us but it may well be a child's desperate clutch at a privacy and dignity he has never had and does not expect to get. Many children who put up such signs know that they won't be respected, that "their" room is as open to other people as any room in their house.

And privacy means privacy of thought as well as space. Too many people think they have a right and duty to know almost everything their child is doing or even thinking. They ask, "What did you do in school today?" to which the child very often replies, "Nothing." He only means, "Nothing that I want to talk about." Or perhaps, "Nothing that I want (or dare) talk to you about - at least right now." People who really like hearing what their children have been doing don't usually have to ask them.

Excerpted and reprinted with permission of Holt Associates.

Originally published as Chapter 28, Escape from Childhood: The Needs and Rights of Children. New York: Ballantine Books, 1974.