Should we treat kids like adults?

Kids want to be treated like adults. I think this is a fact. We can all remember in our childhood wanting to be treated like adults. Whether it was more responsibility, dreaming about our future, being in charge on the playing field or in the playroom at home, or the choice over when to do our homework or our chores. We craved the opportunity to make choices, to learn from our own mistakes, to be in charge even if just for a minute, even if it was just being in charge of ourselves. We can look back now and recognize that we couldn’t handle too much responsibility yet, but we still wanted it. What we hated most of all was someone reminding us that we couldn’t handle it. Judging us for being a kid.

I’ve always taken pride in my ability to connect with kids. I enjoy speaking to kids in my regular voice and never understood the baby-ish voices that people use with younger kids. My vocabulary changes slightly and I often kneel or crouch down to get closer to them, but using the Mickey Mouse voice, unless your trying to make a joke, just never made sense. Recently, however, I’ve started to reflect on my own shortcomings in talking to kids. I’ve started to realize that, while my tone and body language may say, ‘I’m talking to you like an adult,’ I still slip into ‘you’re just a kid’ too often, particularly with my son.

On an episode of The Sporkful podcast, host Dan Pashman interviewed Carvell Wallace, who hosts the Mom and Dad are Fighting podcast. During one segment, Carvell told a story that captured the essence of why kids want to be treated like adults, and why it is better for us if we do.

Carvell was in the car with his son and daughter, engaged in a meaningful conversation, which he almost ruined at the very end. His teenage son had just started to come to a realization about his eating habits – maybe he didn’t have to eat everything all the time. Carvell and his daughter added some thoughtful contributions which built a solid framework for his son to understand himself better, and Carvell felt great about the learning taking place.

At the very end, however, Carvell added, “Yeah, I mean, it’s all the stuff we’ve been telling you for a long time.” This “I told you so” line set his son off. This teenage boy flipped out, asking, “Why did you say that?” genuinely angry that his father added these particular last words. Fortunately, Carvell recognized the genuine frustration, let his son vent for a minute, and gave him his space. When he rehashed the incident later with his co-host, he was able to enlightened Carvell to the problem with his final words. “[Your son] was feeling like an adult. Then you said that thing, ‘It’s all the stuff we’ve been telling you,’ and you reminded him he was a child.”

He was feeling like an adult…then you reminded him he was a child.

Let’s be honest. Kids don’t need us reminding them that they are children. We do it all the time without saying it out loud and they are constantly reminded of it just living every day.

Ever since hearing that story, I’ve noticed similar situations with my 8 year-old son. Maybe my anti-Mickey voice has led me to an elitist ‘I”m a teacher I know how to talk to kids’ feeling. I have always felt like I speak to kids respectfully. I believe that they are capable of adult-like thinking and behavior. (No, not all the time and not as often as adults, but very much capable.) I’m starting to recognize, however, that there are times where I definitely put my kid in his ‘kid place.’ I have also started to see that my son’s worst reactions are often the result of me reminding him he is a child. Just like Carvell, I don’t say it directly, but when I add the last word to judge him mostly for just being a kid, you can see his body language change, the steam building behind his ears, and the frustration level grows.

I’ve also started to realized that I often judge him for the same mistakes I make. In my family which includes 5 siblings, I (and my younger brother) were notoriously the messy ones. Not like room cleaning, but spilling food or drinks at the most inopportune times. This seems to be a hereditary trait, as my son has clearly inherited this gene. In a complete get-off-your-high-horse moment the other night, my son and I were both filling up our glasses with drinks before dinner. Sure enough, we both spilled and we both proceeded to crouch down quickly to slurp up as much liquid as we could from the top of our cups, while simultaneously grabbing napkins to clean up before mom noticed. (To my wife’s credit, she walked through as if nothing was happening because this is all too common. In her wisdom, she knows she has made me a much cleaner human, but my afflicition is incurable. She is slowly working on our son, who has shown little improvement lately.)

Obviously I couldn’t call my son out in this moment, but, had I not made the exact same mistake, I might have. After 37 years, I still spill food. It is in my DNA – at least that’s the story I’m sticking to – yet I like to judge my son harshly because he inherited that DNA. How dare he?

In my position as a school administrator, the same thing happens over and over again, just without the inherited trait element. When a student arrives in my office full of frustration, it is most often because the teacher who sent them made them feel like a child. They were wrong. They knew they were wrong before the teacher said something. They typically understand that the teacher has to say something. What they can’t understand, and what drives their frustration through the roof, is the way in which they were told they were wrong.

My guess is some people who read this will think, “Yes, but they are a child, and adults need to correct.” Agreed, they are and we do need to help them. My argument is, if we took the judgment out of our corrections, we would all be better off for it. This is about us as parents and teachers getting what we want. If we want our kid to stop spilling food, or whining about going to bed, or to stop poking their friend when they’re supposed to be writing, we have to treat kids the way we treat our colleagues.

If I spill food in front of colleagues, they will either let me clean it up on my own or help me clean it up. If I didn’t, they might look at me curiously until I did, they might show me where the paper towels were, or they might ask me if I was going to clean it up. They wouldn’t add a comment about my klutziness or my age. (If you visit a classroom, the same kids have the messiest desks. There are also kids with immaculately clean areas. I wonder where these children come from, but I have seen them. They do exist.)

Here is a list of things we have to teach our students:

  • how to clean up after themselves
  • how to stop crying or control their emotions when things don’t go their way
  • how to organize their materials so they can be prepared and complete their work
  • how to own up to their mistakes and not lie to get out of a consequence

Wouldn’t these also be true of many adults we know?

Lastly, consider the situation from the student’s perspective in the classroom. Over days, weeks, and months, you have worked hard to gain the respect of arguably the third (sometimes higher) most important adult in your life. The teacher has also worked hard to connect with you, teach you, grow you. You’ve developed a relationship that feels like it is based around mutual respect. Then in your moment of weakness, after you have made a mistake that you are fully aware you made, the person whom you have grown to trust reminds you that they are far above you as an adult and you are far below them as a child. Which reminds you that this will always be the case, today, tomorrow, and the rest of the year. Is this student more or less likely to heed your advice or respond to your redirections in the future?

How we say something is as important as, or more important than what we say?

Most of us know this to be true and every parenting/behavior type book I’ve read this summer (and it has been a few) has pointed to the importance of language and tone. While I don’t fully agree with everything in these books, there is a clear connection between them. They all focus on speaking to a child as if they are mature enough to handle themselves as an adult. Most of the time they are.

Following through on the intention of speaking to a child with ‘adult’ tone and language is obviously more difficult than thinking it. I find some solace in the fact that I am more aware of my actions now and I am attempting to improve them. I can honestly say that I have never made a conversation with my son better by adding the last word, especially a a kid-judgment statement. My son has never turned to me and said, “You’re right dad. I should have listened to you the first 20 times you said that.” Or, “Hey dad, the next time you tell me something, I promise I will listen more carefully and I won’t make that mistake again.” I definitely increased the fumes coming out of my kids ears. I probably turned him off to an words I might say for the next 24 hours or more. If I was really smart, I would have stopped talking while I was ahead and trusted him to learn from his mistake, even if he won’t admit to it in the moment.

I still clearly have a lot of room to improve, but I recognize the challenge in a way I had not before. I am making small changes at home and hopefully will be able to share improved outcomes in the near future. There are also pieces of my writing above that I struggled with. Please challenge me on them. I believe the words I wrote, but one of the reasons I write every week is to clarify meaning for myself. I can tell from writing this that I’ll need to continue working on it. If you can help me, with your own insights or questions that challenge my thinking, please do.

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