I recently skimmed over an article similar to this and though I think the basic premise is good, I disagree with a basic sentiment. So here’s my version.
Children are individuals. They are people. Little people, yes, but people. We need to begin treating them as such. Here’s how:
This article talks about practical applications of ideas that should already be in place if you’re interacting with anyone, especially with children. Simplified, this principal idea is that all people have rights, regardless of the variables that make us individuals. These rights are best listed, I believe, in the American Declaration of Independence and the Constitution that followed, including the Bill of Rights.
How do we apply these principles to how we interact with young people?
The articles I’ve read mostly suggest avoiding all discussion pertaining to physical appearance because complimenting young people, specifically young females, reinforces inappropriate appearance-obsessed stereotypes. It suggests instead talking about other things like books or food or, ya know, other bullshit small talk.
I disagree with this wholeheartedly. Are books important to discuss? Usually. [Twilight takes a huge exception here.] What about food? Sometimes. But what they’re wearing? Oh no no, don’t talk about THAT. Talking about how they look will DAMAGE the poor things.
The issue here is that when people have conversations with people, the vast majority of content doesn’t matter. It does not matter. Not even a little. I make small talk at my job all day. And even if I remember those meaningless conversations and follow-up on them when the customer returns, making the customer feel appreciated and important, if I died right now that conversation would have no weight in the cosmos.
The real art to talking to people is to make conversations matter. Challenge how people think in a constructive matter that encourages critical thinking and focus on principles, rather than practice.
With young people we must be more apparent in doing this; we are responsible for directing the conversation towards learning. Because young people have not yet developed observation skills acute enough to realize we’re gearing towards important things, we need to make it obvious. I’ll give a couple of examples here.
- When I was young, Beauty and the Beast was my favorite film. It’s still my favorite Disney film and the direct French translation is now my favorite fairy tale. In the Disney film there are three women, apparently triplets, living in Belle’s town who positively swoon over Gaston’s every gesture. These women are whores. An adult can easily spot this because of the loose clothing, the crazy red lipstick, and other subtle stereotypes such as blond hair, an attraction to the physical appearance alone, and even the exaggerated hourglass figure. As a child, I did not know these women were whores. In fact, I was confused why Belle was portrayed as so plain when she should have been the most beautiful woman in town (as the story says). It wasn’t obvious to me that these women should be undesirable. In fact, they were rather glamorize. My biggest complaint about this movie is that these women weren’t portrayed as the revolting creatures they were supposed to be, at least not as a child sees it. They should have been obviously undesirable, such as dirty or diseased or deformed or SOMETHING. Because as a child, I thought the whores were the beautiful popular girls, though a little dumb, and I didn’t understand what their role in the story was.
- While babysitting for four kids of various ages ranging from liltinybaby to teenager, I watched the thriller, borderline horror film, the happening. I did this while sitting for a family that does not believe in sheltering their children, but believes that it is more important for children to learn about things they are exposed to in a family environment rather than in another setting where the family is not present. This being said, their five-year old son was allowed to watch this movie with myself and the teenager. The toddler was quite uninterested. The basic premise of this movie is that a plant-based contagion spreads as a virus through humans, causing them to kill themselves in ways directly tied to the core of their characters. During this film, the young boy sat between me and the teenager, in a comfortably safe environment, and asked many questions about the movie. He understood that the people were killing themselves, though the movie did not directly show this, and understood that killing themselves was wrong. Even at this age he had to justify why these people were doing this bad thing, and he asked me why it was so. I explained to him that the people were getting very sick and this sickness made the people harm themselves. He continued to ask many questions to understand the film and we even got to talk about why some people to bad things and why it’s important to choose to do the good things, even when it’s hard. These are super-simplified discussions that are really easy to get into with kids (easier than you’d think!) and are really important to have.
- I’d like you to imagine, if you will, a conversation you have with a little girl. Ask her about the book she’s reading. She tells you it’s about a princess and a prince and how they fall in love. She wants a prince to fall in love with someday. Ask her about the prince. What traits does she want him to have? Does she want him to be brave for her? Honest to her? Tender towards her and a strong companion with her to fight the world? The key here isn’t in avoiding any topics, you see, it’s just in knowing what directions to move the conversations.
When I was young strangers frequently complimented my hair or my attire. I’d often respond with thanks (per my mother’s urging) and an addition such as “this is my favorite dress!” or “These are my favorite hair bows!” I was rarely asked why. No one asked why I liked certain things more than others. Now in life, with a vast interest in costume design, fashion composition, and other various visual dabbling I can tell you exactly why I liked those things. I loved my daisy dress because it was form-fitting on top, flowy on the bottom, and had a bold contrast of bright yellow against a white background. I love bold colors, the vibrancy is absolutely captivating. It’s the same reason the purple hair bows were my favorite. My hair was a golden color when I was young and I loved how the purple complimented the flaxseed yellow of my hair. It’s still a favorite color of mine, probably due to my original memories. But no one ever asked me why. No one challenged me.
So no, you should not hesitate to compliment the girl next to you on the bus on her ruby slippers. If you think she looks adorable, tell her so. Even grown women absolutely light up when they are complimented.
But ask her why she wore her ruby slippers. Ask why they’re her favorite. Ask her about everything she’s done in them, and what she will do in them. Because that little girl may be designing your ruby slippers in twenty years. Or she may be dancing across the MET in her ruby-red ballet shoes. Or she may be giving special needs patients knitted red slippers to encourage them in their fight to get well enough to get home.
If you ask people why, they will have two options: they will choose to reflect and answer, or they will choose to avoid conversation. Young people love the question “why?” and they love conversation. Use this advantage to teach them something.