We give kids a lot less credit than they deserve. Society has trended towards more and more policing of children and their bodies in different ways in different spaces and it begs the question — how did we all survive when we were just released into the wilds on bikes and told to come home when the streetlights come on? In “Stranger Things” you see the kids ride off onto their bikes saving Hawkins from untold supernatural bad guys; but in today’s day and age most children aren’t given that level of freedom and autonomy to save the world.
Society bemoans the “millennial” who can’t do anything for themselves but look at what has happened to the way we raise children since I was born; I am what people would refer to the oldest of the elder millennials or the youngest of the Gen Xers (no one can quite figure us out) and how children’s lives are structured and how they are raised by the village in today’s society feels vastly different than how I was raised.
All in all, I think my parents did an excellent job. Of course, in retrospect there are things I wish had gone differently growing up, on both their and my parts but ultimately they did the best job they could with the information they had and thus created me — some might point out my character flaws and think they could have tamed them but ultimately I think they molded me the best way they could — but I digress.
This is not to say that we need to revert back to the “good ol’ days” because as Billy Joel tells us “the good old days aren’t always good” but I think there are definitely some lessons that we need to look at because through our words and actions we are constantly telling kids that they aren’t capable and adults need to handle everything for them — but we’ve been having children and surviving as a species for almost 200,000 years and if all our history has taught us anything kids aren’t as fragile as we make them out to be. We need to stop treating kids like they aren’t intelligent, aware, and conscious human beings.
We are meant to be their teachers (regardless of your position in their lives, if you come in contact with a child you are one of their teachers) but we are not meant to be their dictators.
Some ways I have found that help build up this in my own child –
1. Get her to order for herself at restaurants. From a very young age, I had my daughter talking directly to the waitstaff. It started out with her repeating what I/my husband were saying and then it grew to her asking directly for what she wants. Sometimes the waitstaff looks at me expecting me to order and I just say “tell them what you want” and she does it. Why? Because it’s her food. I’m not eating it and I don’t need to be her mouthpiece. When we went to get her ears pierced at the local tattoo shop (PSA — if you don’t know take your kids to get their ears pierced at a tattoo or piercing shop; not the gun at the mall!) and the piercer was very impressed with how she could tell him exactly what she wanted and her level of self-advocacy at 6 years old, exclaiming that he’s had 12-year-olds that can’t speak as freely as she does.
2. Let them have unstructured and unsupervised play time. I think this is the thing that has changed the most drastically over the past three or four decades. Children are not allowed or expected to be off doing their own thing without adult supervision. This is where critical thinking and problem solving skills are fostered; through free and unstructured play children learn their own boundaries and limits. I am not a “free-range” parent but I let my daughter range on the block with other kids. We did have to buy a set of walkie-talkies so we could communicate because sometimes she’ll bounce from house to house and it took a little extra to track her down so these allow us to check in, call her home for dinner, or whatever but we allow her the chance to experience life without an adult managing it for her.
3. When they have a meltdown — let them. We cannot manage all the emotional ups and downs of life for ourselves so we definitely can’t micromanage our children’s emotional roller coasters. The best we can do is give them the techniques, be there for them, and when they’re ready, let them to come back to us. When my daughter is really upset I ask her if she’s hungry if I know she hasn’t eaten in a while (being a kid takes a lot of energy!) and then I offer a hug and if neither of those things helps her to regulate herself I’ll tell her to come talk to me when she’s ready. We need to let them walk the walk of difficult emotions. No one likes them and they don’t always feel good but working through them allow us to grow through them.
4. Have tough conversations with them. We’ve had to discuss why we don’t put on blackface, prison, death, periods, miscarriage, differently abled people, different family structures, and a myriad of other things considering that she is just 6 years old. They can handle topics that sometimes we’d rather not talk about. These are part of their lives and if your child goes to school with others they will hear and experience things that we do not control so occasionally we have to have these discussions whether we want to or not. If you use age-appropriate language and examples, they can handle it better than you thought possible; usually better than most of us who have grown up shying away from tough conversations. And if all else fails, there is usually a book on amazon or at the library that can help you talk about anything that might come up.
Bottom line is that children are more capable and do not need to be shielded from the realities of the world. If anything, this shielding hurts them in the long run; we should be the soft place to land when things go wrong or get difficult.
Things will go wrong, they will get difficult, and children don’t need platitudes or sugar coating — they need adults who will face the tough things as the wind at their back helping them move forward and not the bulldozer plowing the field in front of them.
If the demogorgan came to your town, could your kid help save the day?