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Children: Do We Get It?

I was in a waiting room recently, passing the time by reading a popular magazine. There was a section on children's rights, with a story on secrets of child-raising the current U.S. First Lady, Hillary Clinton, had once received from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

Here's one suggestion from Jackie to Hillary: if the Kennedy children were late for school, the car went without them; this taught them responsibility. This remarkable piece of advice says it all. Children are assumed to operate in a different universe, on different principles of behavior - where adversity brings about maturity, haughty disregard for the child's feelings brings about filial love, and frustration brings about responsibility. Adults, of course, presumably don't require such harsh lessons. One wonders with some trepidation how Hillary would respond to hearing this bit of wisdom from the President: "Now, Hillary, that's the second time you've been late for a state function. Next time we start dinner without you!" Naturally, this would make her a more responsible person and devoted spouse. Right?

Oh, it doesn't work that way, you say? She would actually respond in a different, perhaps even opposite way? (So would children.) She'd feel insulted, humiliated, and embarrassed, have fantasies of skipping the next three state dinners, and maybe even of retaliating somehow against the disrespectful person who had insulted her? (So would a child.) She'd be too angry to learn anything worthwhile? She would have preferred to hear something quite different, such as, "I've noticed you're running late for some of these functions; is there anything I can do to help?", or better yet, "How are you feeling about these dinners?" or even better, "Let's talk about your feelings and see what changes we need to make in the arrangements"? (So would a child.) Ah, but I was forgetting, she's an adult, and she operates on adult principles of behavior, so she's allowed to have those feelings. One is left to wonder: on just which day of our life do we become an adult, and suddenly earn the right to be treated with understanding, respect, and compassion?

In a previous column, I wrote about punishment interfering with the best occasions for learning. The missed car to school affords just this sort of opportunity. Parents could utilize such an event to discuss many truly meaningful issues with their child, ranging from the most mundane (how to organize one's time before an important appointment) to the serious (how to recognize when one is passive-aggressively avoiding an appointment) to the truly profound (how to recognize and accept one's emotional responses and express them in an appropriate yet effective way). Worlds of opportunity are lost forever when we take the easy route of dealing with surface issues in superficial ways. If responsibility is taught in a harsh way, then exactly how are patience, tolerance, forgiveness and understanding to be taught?

Some will argue that adversity can teach responsibility and bring about maturity. But to whatever extent this may be true, life brings ample adverse experience all on its own (the Kennedy children being a most poignant example), without our adding artificial hurdles for our children to jump. While everything in life offers a learning experience, adversity can best be handled by those who have gained self-esteem, self-acceptance, and optimism through earlier experiences of encouragement and success. As the educator John Holt wrote, it is our store of happy experiences, operating like "money in the bank", that best prepares us for difficult times. The Kennedy children fared as well as they did in November of 1963 thanks to whatever happy, positive and supportive experiences they had had prior to that date, not through punishment "toughening" them. As every child knows, but many adults have forgotten, "tough love" is a contradiction in terms.

With our attitudes toward children, we either "get it" that children are real people with real feelings, who deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, or we don't get it, and continue to follow what society - our neighbors, alleged experts, and First Ladies - tell us about children and child-raising. We'd be better off following the Golden Rule. And so would our children.

Portuguese translation

Jan Hunt, M.Sc., offers counseling worldwide, with a focus on parenting and unschooling. She is the Director of The Natural Child Project and author of The Natural Child: Parenting from the Heart and A Gift for Baby.