"What's the magic word?" said the shop assistant, waving his new purchase in front of him.
Are you serious? I thought to myself.
His expression turned from excitement to confusion. Moments earlier he confidently approached "the lady", smiling and greeting her with a cheery "Hello." He placed his chosen dinosaur carefully on the counter and proudly paid for his new toy.
"We don't do the magic word," I interjected, "Can you just pass him the toy? Thank you."
She seemed perplexed, but my instincts wouldn't allow my almost-three-year-old son to be spoken to like that. As soon as I heard the words I had flashbacks to childhood, with my immediate gut reaction letting me know it was condescending and disrespectful -- my son felt it too.
To a young child, adults are big and powerful, and children go along with ridiculous questions like these not because they're learning but because they're fearful.
Since becoming a parent, my eyes have been opened to a minority I was unaware of -- and it's the cutest little minority there is. Children are often treated as second class citizens, as somehow less than adults.
Adultism describes the bias for adults over children. It leads to a phenomenon of "little adults" where the belief is children are "adults-in-the-making" rather than who they really are, which is spontaneous, playful and fun-loving children. This discrimination precipitates manipulation of children and fuels society's expectation of a parenting approach centered on adult's wants rather than children's needs.
The saying "children should be seen and not heard" is rarely uttered today but it persists in churning the undercurrent of society's attitude about the way children should behave. Stereotypical phrases we heard repeatedly as children permeate our subconscious minds and when our buttons are pushed we say them automatically with little understanding for how they affect our most vulnerable and impressionable little people.
"Knowing what we stand for and, more importantly, what we won't, and having the courage to respectfully defend our children sends a strong message."
When we communicate disrespectfully it hinders children's ability to develop a healthy sense of self-worth and sabotages their naturally growing confidence and self-esteem. Sadly, it also breeds disrespect. Gandhi's famous quote "Be the change you wish to see in the world" teaches us if we want our children to treat others with respect we must first model respectful behaviour towards all people, regardless of age.
It would never have entered the shop assistant's mind to ask me what the magic word is. Ironically, if she'd paused she would have heard an enthusiastic thank you from my son, which he freely offers of his own volition. Holding our children to higher standards than we would hold ourselves to is hypocritical and provides yet another avenue for adults to exert their control.
Working as a veterinarian I observed the same domineering mindset influencing the way people treat man's best friend. It's an unfortunate human tendency to bully those less powerful than ourselves, whether it's done consciously or not. As a parent, I now see babies and children also need a voice.
Swimming against the tide of convention is arduous. Being a conscious parent means we patiently following our instincts, invest in rock-solid connections with our children through an extension of mutual respect and a recognition their needs are as valid as our own. Speaking for myself, I can't be the parent at the park threatening my child by counting to three, prompting him to say please and thank you or demanding he offer affection to a relative.
I recently read an enlightening book about the unique parenting practices in Denmark called The Danish Way. In it, the authors describe the concept they refer to as their "big lines" of parenting.
Big lines are the values you feel are the most important -- the values you will always strive to encourage and reinforce. One of our family's sacred values is to maintain an atmosphere of respect. Committing to this big line makes it easier to be unaffected by what other's may think, to let judgement fly by and to respond with a knowing smile to a raised eyebrow.
"I'm never going to teach my son manners, at least not in the conventional sense, because children learn more from what we do and who we are than what we say."
A wise friend once shared an anonymous quote with me which I find myself recalling often as a parent: "If You Don't Stand for Something, You'll Fall for Anything." Family, friends and complete strangers may startle us with the way they treat our children sometimes. It can be tempting to overlook it, to just leave it be. After all, it's only one comment and surely our kids won't remember it, will they?
But, knowing what we stand for and, more importantly, what we won't, and having the courage to respectfully defend our children sends a strong message. It lets our children know they're safe in this big, wild world, that we have their backs and they needn't be fearful. It gives them the courage to grow into their full potential and a freedom to take risks as they learn to navigate the choppy waters of society.
So, I'm never going to teach my son manners, at least not in the conventional sense, because children learn more from what we do and who we are than what we say.
I'll teach him manners by modelling kind and respectful behaviour and in doing so, I hope I'll become a better person too. I believe our children are sent to us at a time in our lives when we need a gentle nudge and a reminder of the innocence and beauty of humanity. They prompt us to slow down and to be open and humble, showing us there is purpose in being young, wild and free and that we could all benefit from a little less control.
And, if I'm being honest, my son bursts with infinitely more compassion and kindness than I ever could. All I need to do as a parent is encourage it to take root and flourish.
A version of this post originally appeared on Raised Good.
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