I was raised in a very small family. When I say small, I mean S-M-A-L-L. I am an only child, as was my father and his mother. My paternal grandfather was one of four, but only one of them had a child - and he was an only child as well. My mother has a sister, and although their mother had siblings there were few cousins my own age. My aunt had a child when I was 19. My parents got divorced when I was 20, and they both remarried only children. Our family reunion could fit in a Honda Odyssey.
It was a good childhood. My small family size meant that I spent a good deal of time with adults when I was growing up. I loved it; I played adult games, and had adult conversations and ate adult meals in adult ways. But when I became an adult - chronologically, at least - I struggled when I tried to behave like one. It was almost as though there was some "child" in me that never did come out when I was young, but was determined to escape when I got older. Over the years, I learned to keep some of that at bay while I attempted to do grown up things like hold a job and pay my bills, and I got very good at keeping that child inside during the work day.
But at night and on weekends, the kid comes out . . . if you don't believe me, look at 90% of my pictures on Facebook. I love to play, I love to laugh, I love to make fun of things and crack jokes, and I love to keep my internal editor off for as long as possible. Why?
Because acting young - or should I say, acting un-adult - makes me feel young and happy and connected with my children. It helps me view the world as a child does; in simple terms, what feels right and wrong, what does or does not work for me, and what is fun or boring. The way that children view the world. The way we were all born to view it.
Wouldn't life be even more amazing than it is we all lived in a world of Willy Wonka rather than a world of Oliver Twist? I think it would. The Willy Wonka factory was a place in which everything was possible, in which dreams could come true. People were equals, regardless of their age or abilities. There were lessons to be learned, for sure, but there was also ample love to be given and shared. It was a world of freedom, and choice, and what could be.
Of course, the establishment - schools, governments, corporations, mainstream media - will be quick to tell you that the world doesn't work like Willy Wonka. It's not meant to be fun. There's structure, and work to be done, and achievements to be pursued, and imperfections to be eliminated. In such an environment there will be winners and losers, and socio-economic Darwinism is a reality. We need to strive to be productive, personally and collectively. That's just the way the world works.
But I disagree with that. Perhaps that is the way the world works, but only because we allow it to be so. We have built, or bought into, or perhaps simply refused to fight, a system in which we are geared toward productivity from an early age. In the work place, productivity can only be achieved through rigorous measurements and milestones. It only means something when we compare it against what other organizations are achieving, so we can determine who is doing things the right way. Sadly, this "need" to measure ourselves - and to hold others accountable for how they measure up - creeps into our lives at a very early age.
We have built our society around treating our children according to their age, by overwhelming them with a variety of age-based milestones. We start when they're in the womb for goodness sake, and then we talk about what age they should sit up by themselves, at what age they should crawl and walk, when they should stop breastfeeding.
Educationally, we believe that children should learn to read between ages three and four, and be fairly literate by the time they get to school. We know that they should begin Kindergarten at age five or six, begin puberty at roughly 12, work at 15, drive at 16, graduate high school and leave the house at 18, and leave college by 23. Then we think they should go to work, get married, have and raise children, and buy a house.
Now of course, not all parents do this; I would guess that if you are reading this blog at all you at least recognize that there is a better way to approach life. But many - most - parents do measure their child along these lines. I'm not talking about scholastic measurements, or sports-related measurements, where at least there is some "standard" (jacked up though it may be) against which kids are held. I am simply talking about measurements based on age: when they should crawl or walk, when they should sleep alone, when they should learn to read, when they should have a period or lose their teeth, etc. These "shoulds" are strictly arbitrary; the very fact that the suggested ages do not apply to everyone proves as much. They are simple constructs that were developed because people naturally are inclined to compare their children to others. Even the most amazing parents have likely done this from time to time, wondering if their child is somehow developmentally behind because the little girl across the street learned how to ride her bike earlier.
When this happens - when parents arbitrarily make behavior judgments based on age - it usually takes one form. In many instances, it is when a young child is behaving, well, like a young child - in play, in demeanor, in attitude, in capability, in comprehension. Parents in this circumstance often implore their child to "grow up" or "act their age." If the child is a tween or teen, they are often told to "be more responsible" or "think of other people." In either case, the parent has an expectation that the child is doing something - behaving, performing, speaking - as someone younger would do. Most critically, it demonstrates two things: that the parent is more concerned with how the child measures up against others than they are about how comfortable the child is in her own development path, and that the parent has pre-defined and arbitrary expectations of how their children should behave. Instead of knowing their children and supporting or helping them through challenging or overwhelming periods, they exact a standard of behavior based solely on their own expectations, robbing their child of the freedom of thought and expression that is the right of all people. Now, I am not suggesting that Dad fail to correct Johnny when Johnny dunks someone in the swimming pool; that is the exception, of course. But I am suggesting that Dad would serve his child better by understanding them rather than by enforcing arbitrary age-based behavioral or developmental expectations on them.
Even though I was at an unschooling conference this past weekend, I still saw ample evidence of this. Some of it was genuine, private, unvoiced concern shared in confidence by people simply looking for some support. But some of it was out loud and "in your face" criticism leveled directly at the child: "grow up", "that's unacceptable for someone of your age", "you're too young/old for that", "we expect more out of you", "why can't you be more like your older brother", etc. For each occurence, I imagine that there was some precipitating event that triggered it; but to "fight" back against your children with words that devalue their response to an event, especially because of your own expectation based solely on what they "should" be, is very sad. We owe to our children to do better.
Ironically enough, when children become adults who conform and have a difficult time cutting loose and acting more playfully, they get criticized for being too stodgy or grown up. They just can't win. When they were young, they were too young; now that they're older, they should act younger. It's almost as though behaving like a grown up is valued when you're a child, and behaving in a more child-like way is valued when you're an adult. And just as a child feels devalued when prodded to act more grown up, and adult feels devalued when told that they act
too grown up.
Devaluing your child is destructive behavior; destructive to their freedom, their confidence, and their faith in their dreams. I've got a better idea.
Let's respect our children, our partners, and each other as individual people with the freedom to do what feels right to them. Let's understand that "acting" like a child means viewing the world in simple, unfettered terms for all it can be. Let's stop making arbitrary age-based judgments at all. Let's celebrate the right for kids to act like kids, and grown ups to act like kids, and everyone in between to act like kids, if that's what they choose to do. In fact, let's not bind the hearts of our children with expectations of any type, let alone arbitrary ones. Let's help them live in a Willy Wonka world, in which everything is possible and dreams can come true. Let's show them that people are equals, regardless of their age or abilities. Let's provide them with freedom, and choice, and give them all of our love for them to share with others.
And then let's stand back and watch them blossom as they gain freedom from our judgments.