Three different incidents over the last few months have drawn my attention to a disturbing trend. The first was something that happened at a restaurant near the beach.
Three of us were sipping coffee and admiring the view. The play area was full of chattering kids, and we became aware of a little boy (aged about 4) sitting on the wall, weeping as if his heart would break. You could tell that he’d been crying for a while because he’d reached the shuddering hiccup stage. I wondered whether he was lost as there were no parents with him, he just sat and cried. All three of us reached the same conclusion simultaneously, and we got up to ask if he was lost. As we rose, a man left a table (about 3 metres away from the boy), and led him back to what was obviously his family. There is no way for me to answer this, but I wonder how long he would have been left to cry if we hadn’t approached him?
The tyrant next door
The next incident is the case of my four year old neighbour. I know that sounds strange, but he really does appear to be the man of the house. He states when he will sleep, tells his parents to shut up whenever they intervene, slams doors and screams abuse at them when things aren’t going his way, and generally rules the home with a tiny iron fist. The other side of this story is that he weeps whenever he has to leave the house, he is not allowed to play with any of the other children in the street, and every family visit ends in a shrieking fiasco.
The third episode happened while facilitating a supervised visit for a family that is going through a difficult divorce. There’s a reason that this visit had to be supervised: the father has a long track-record of threatening and unstable behaviour. The eldest son, aged 11, and the baby are impervious to their father’s manipulations, but the six year old daughter struggles with the thought of him being sad. And, naturally, he is the saddest man on earth whenever she is in the room. It was going to be a tough afternoon, but we had to remain friendly and firm throughout. I left the visiting area to go to the bathroom, and when I came back the father had left with the little girl! When I asked the mother why she’d allowed this to happen, her reply was: “Oh, but she was so sad, and she didn’t want Daddy to be sad.”
I immediately informed the mediator, and we managed to ensure that he brought his daughter back three days later, but this last incident crystallised my thinking: since when do small children carry the burden of managing homes, mediating conflict, laying down schedules and generally managing their parents’ happiness?
Growing up is a full time job
From birth to the age of at least sixteen years, children have to complete a range of specific and time-consuming tasks in order to become functional adults. It begins with growth and physical development – anyone that has watched a nine-month old making his first step will remember the intense concentration as the little body and mind zones in on placing one tentative foot after the other.
The next stages are about mastering skills like language, colours and co-ordination. In between all of this the child is starting to recognise that the world is bigger than just mom, and that he’s an entirely separate entity. This is when we enter the “No!” stage, and he begins to experience all those intense human emotions like frustration, anger, humour and excitement. And so it unfolds: the years that follow are all about learning skills, developing relationships with friends and family, facing all of those “firsts” like love, loss, disappointment, victory, boundaries (and what happens when you cross them), and finding our what to do with your future.
Too much, too young
Which brings me back to my question: in all of this preparation for life, when does a child have time to manage the emotional life of his parents? What possible experience and skill can a four year old bring to the complex business of raising himself?
While I don’t support the idea of rigid only-speak-when-you’re-spoken-to discipline, I really feel sorry for children living in apparently rudderless homes where they have to assume the burden of self-discipline from the age of three. It can only result in him/her being short-changed on skills that only older humans can impart.
It’s also the reason that my tyrannical little neighbour has been embargoed by all households but his own – no-one appears to have had the courage to explain to him that he cannot shriek at strangers and get away with it, or that he cannot liberate the property of other children without them fighting back. And before this turns into a debate on whether he should have been spanked or not, there are many ways to deal with children firmly that don’t include spanking. It just takes love and the courage to be a parent.
How to say no to kids, nicely
Raising a well-adjusted child
(Joanne Hart, Health24, November 2009)