Disclaimer here: I don’t have children. I don’t feel I ever really understood children, even when I was one. However, I feel this way about grown-ups, too. Perhaps because I am some way along ‘the spectrum’ . Certainly I don’t sentimentalise children or childhood at all. Thus I only have an outsider’s view on being with children and growing them up. But, just as I do with any marginalised group of humans, I stand with children, and I will advocate for children’s full human rights in any way I can. There is no way that I can express my feelings about children’s rights more eloquently than this article in New Internationalist‘s youth issue. Please do read it.
I understand that some grown-ups will protest: ‘But you aren’t a parent, you just don’t understand! Children need discipline! Children need protection!’ I agree with all of that. I will never understand what it is to be a parent. However, I do remember what it was like to be a child. Not having autonomy was often painful for me and the memory of that always makes me glad to be an adult. However hard it may be to take responsibility for oneself, it’s much, much better than not having power over your own life.
Yes, children need discipline. So do we all! But what form should it take? The ‘because I told you so’ school of unquestioning obedience is not good enough for adults, neither is it ever good enough for children. And as for physical ‘discipline’ – imagine saying ‘Oh, sometimes I just have to give my wife a smack, it’s the only thing she understands, the only way to make her behave’ – is that acceptable to you? Perhaps you do feel that a ‘smack’ is the only channel of communication you have open to you in a certain situation, but have the honesty to admit that that is your failure to implement either an effective argument (with an older child) or firm restraint or safeguarding with a younger child. A child (especially one too young to understand a reasoned argument) is much smaller than you – you can’t contain them in any other way than to strike them?
Yes, children need protection. They need patience, care, endless love and time and explanations and discussions and being made to feel safe and that they can trust the adults in their lives, that they can come to them with their worries and problems. It’s not a job I could do well, I think, and I admire those who can. We can protect our kids best by making them feel empowered to ask questions, to have opinions, to speak up about the things that they’re thinking. By making them feel valued, so that they may be less willing to risk themselves, to offer themselves up for attention from the wrong sources, or the wrong sort of attention. Most essential of all, we have to give our children the sense that they own their own bodies. Never, ever make a child accept physical attention that they don’t want. Never make them kiss Aunty Lou because it would be bad manners not to, or because Aunty Lou might be upset if they don’t. Kids will offer affection when they feel they want to, and this is right and proper, and safer. Then perhaps 20 years from now, significantly fewer of us will answer #MeToo when the question is asked.
I want a world where we respect one another. We won’t all agree, that’s okay. We won’t all get along, that’s okay, too. But I want a world where violence really is a matter of last resort, for defence. I want a world where sexual contact is divorced from power relations and is pleasurable and consensual for everyone. I want to live among people who take responsibility for themselves and their actions and speech, and who take time to think about what they’re doing and know how to articulate why they’re doing it.
Children have loads more synapses than us old fogeys do. Their minds are not ‘made up’, they are not realists. They can make creative leaps that we have lost the ability to. Teenagers can bring a joy and enthusiasm, a ‘can-do (anything)’ attitude that most older people are too sensible or self-conscious to conjure. They can make anything fun. Let these young humans participate in their world, they will bring us so many gifts. Playfulness, intensity, imagination, questioning everything, flexibility, empathy. We all need more of those.