What do Kids Really Want? Kindness from Parents
by Shawn Smythe
A response to a CNN opinion piece.
If I may speak for some of the children I’ve come to know, we can skip the video games, scooters and skateboards. The gift most children really want is parents who treat them with kindness and respect. Congruously, parents say they want the same from their kids. What most parents don’t realize is that the only way children can emulate kindness and respect is if they are treated with those same qualities. Remember the Golden Rule? It applies to all humans, not just grown ups.
There’s a story that a friend shared a few months ago that really made an impression on me — as it did a roomful of other middle-aged parents who are struggling with raising their toddlers and/or teenagers.
One day, my friend said, he walked into his house and respectfully asked his teenage son for some help with some minor chores outside. The son, who had been playing video games, paused the game and got up to help. Within a few minutes, my friend and his son were laughing and cooperatively getting the chores done. The whole process didn’t take long from start to finish, and they had fun to boot.
Because society has a warped view about how teenagers and toddlers behave, I was stunned. I had always heard that teenagers were defensive and uncooperative. But that’s not what I saw here. I saw mutual respect between two people. I saw a kind and loving relationship. I saw eagerness to help each other. I saw kinship.
It’s a great story. But what I found most interesting was the crowd’s reaction. It amounted to thunderous applause. It was as if they were ready to name my friend,”Father of the Year.”
There must be a whole segment of Americans who are thirsty for this message. They’re worried that they won’t find the delicate balance between allowing their children basic human rights and being too indulgent. They’re concerned that if they are too kind to their kids, if they meet their children’s needs, the poor things will spoil. But we all know children don’t spoil.
Experts are finding the opposite to be true. Children learn from watching their mentors in action. They do as you do, not as you say. They learn respect by being treated with respect. They learn to trust by being trusted. They learn honesty by being told the truth. Adults must simply be what they want from their kids.
No one, of any age, wants to be controlled, punished, belittled, or micro-managed. Yet traditional, authoritative, control- and/or fear-based parenting paradigms tell us that it’s the only way to train up our kids. But, would you use those tactics on your spouse or your best friend or your co-worker; and would you allow those people to use these tactics on you? Would it be okay for your spouse to strap you in a chair and force-feed you? Would it be okay to demand that your best friend always comply to your schedule, with no room for compromise, and often very little advance notice? Would it be okay for your co-worker to give you a time-out or take your favorite stapler for they day ifyou didn’t comply with his every demand? No? Then, why is it okay totreat our smallest and most inexperienced humans this way? It’s not.
Now, I suspect, a lot of people are experiencing a kind of parents’ remorse. Many of us were raised in strict homes full of rules and expectations where mom and dad never tried to be our friends, had no emotional connection with us and weren’t shy about yanking us back in line. And so, when we became parents, we did the same thing because we thought if our parents loved us and treated us this way and we turned out okay, that coercion and command must be a fine way to parent.
We may have eased up on the yanking and spanking a bit, but we still use punitive actions like ‘time-outs’, and we still control what and how much goes into and out of our children’s mouths, when they wake and when they sleep and where they go and with whom and for how long, and what they wear, and how much screen time they get and what books they read and how long they ride their bikes and where. We dictate their every action. We bought into the crazy notion that children are wild creatures who need to be groomed and trained and molded into productive members of society.
We have effectively taught our kids both not to think for themselves, nor to think highly of themselves. Rather, we teach children to always defer to adults, authority, teachers, clergy, government. Now, instead of having independent adolescents and adults who are capable of thinking for themselves, we have people who don’t know how to do anything for themselves. They have been micro-managed from birth and once they are free members of society, don’t know where to go or what to do without being told by someone, be it a boss, a spouse, a church, or even acult. Often they unknowingly walk into abusive relationships because being told what to do feels so natural to them.
But, before we condemn our parents, we must remember that they were also taught as children that they could not be trusted, that they did not deserve respect or empathy, and that their opinions didn’t matter, so it’s difficult for them to learn to trust and respect others, especially children.
One child told me recently that all he wants from parents is a little gratitude. That’s it. He wants them to show even the slightest bit of appreciation for all that children are working hard to do and learn. Being a kid is hard work. There is a big world and a lot to figure out. Parents have forgotten how to say “thank you” and “I love you” to their children. They have forgotten how to make eye contact and connect. They have forgotten how to listen. Sadly, they have forgotten how to love.
Parents expect too much from children. Another child told me that he wants his parents to lighten up a bit before he leaves home, that he hopes he and his parents can form some semblance of a meaningful relationship before he leaves in a few years. He would like for them to understand that, if they want something from him, they can’t just demand it. He would like for them to realize he is a sentient being in his own right, not somehow an extension of his parents and their beliefs and feelings. If his parents want his love and respect, they must earn it, just like they have told him over the years. Yet the paradox is lost.
As for me, I’m getting more comfortable with the idea of making more demands on my parents.
This Father’s Day, and for all the rest to come, here’s what they can give me:
I want each of them to stop acting like an autocrat, and learn to share more. I want them to share their time and attention, not their opinions and judgments. I want them to listen more and dictate less. I want them to get out of their heads this corrosive idea that the world revolves around their ideologies, and all that matters at any given moment of the day is what they want, need or feel. I want them to treat people better, starting with their children and grandchildren, and then moving on to all children of the world, and to complete strangers; and to not look down on anyone – ever – not because of their skin color, their religion or lack thereof, their sexual preferences or for any other reason, seemingly big or small.
Of course, the rub isthat this is what children are for. It’s our job to instill these values and teach parents how to become good people. It doesn’t always happen organically. And it probably won’t happen magically. But it will happen if we set the standards, if we set the example. We must continually remind our parents that we are brilliant, autonomous, critically thinking, amazing, independent individuals, and if they would stop for a moment, really stop, they would learn a lot more from us than we could ever learn from them.
It’s not easy being a kid. In fact, it’s exhausting. And it can often be frustrating. That is something parents seem to forget too often. In fact, a lot of kids decide it is too hard. They give up, check out, hang back and essentially let their parents think they’re right.
The primary reason we have gotten into this mess is that authoritative parenting creates kids who lie and sneak around in order to keep their parents happy…for a time. They perfect the good kid façade, andthe parents buy it. And the cycle continues.
The only way out of this mess is for us as concerned parents to get back in the game. We must beemotionally present in our children’s lives. In addition to being a parent, we must also be a friend, an ally, a life guide, and their biggest admirer. We must learn how to listen without judgment, how to be patient when we least feel it, how to trust our children when we most fear it,and how to respect them when we think they least deserve it. And when it feels like something’s gotta give, look inward. Because the only person you can effectively exert control over is yourself.
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Shawn is the lucky mom of an amazing eight year old. They live an unschool life in Oklahoma with their favorite guy, a couple of cats, some frogs, a few shrimp, a fish and a gecko. They enjoy traveling, spending time as a family and hanging out with friends. Shawn has a special affinity for graphic design, writing and most importantly, children’s rights. You can find her hanging out on her Facebook page Human Rights for Human Children.