Children often say things that show adult wisdom. “Out of the mouths of babes” we chuckle. But often we fail to realize the same intelligence that generates their words also interprets what they hear.
As I’ve been studying teen and youth culture the past few years, I’ve been struck by the number of articles and posts decrying the “sexualization” of young children. One can find new articles haranguing the fashion industry or a clothing line almost every week for their mature clothing choices targeting pre-teens. Parents, correctly so, are condemned for playing to their children’s whims and allowing them to buy, dress, and act twice their age.
But only on occasion do I hear anyone ever suggest that adults must change the things they say to their children.
Over the past month, I’ve paid close attention to that idea. Nieces, Nephews, Grandchildren, Neighborhood kids, I’ve listened to what people say about, and especially to, their kids. One thing I’ve noticed: while an adult may not dress their kid up for (moral/identity) failure, they sure do talk them into it.
Take this last weekend. Easter had everyone decked out in their, respective, best. The toddlers and children running around church were admired by each and every adult. Facebook solidified this fact for the remainder of the weekend. Even relatives from out-of-town were cooing over how adorable their friends kids looked.
Not to be “jonny raincloud” here, everyone did look adorable, but I wonder if that is the majority of what they hear? From birth on, most adults talk more about how “cute, adorable, beautiful,” and “handsome” a kid is than any other trait. I wonder if we aren’t all conditioning them to desire this more than anything else (proper clothing or not)! Couldn’t we, just as lovingly, praise their joyful smiles, willingness to show love to their siblings, or happy attitude? That little girl in your Sunday school needs to hear these things far more than she needs to hear she is cute; it is by hearing any of these affirmations that she learns what to value.
I realize that values and desires are more complex than this simple idea. But I believe that the affirming words shown to children play a huge role in the process. For instance, I can still remember vividly a summer evening working on the lawn as a child, no more than 10. I was trying (as best I could) to edge the front lawn as my mother and a friend of our family- Sandy- sat talking on the porch. That day I was determined to win against the lawn… and it was NOT easy work at the time. But at some point during my battle with the grass, Sandy called out “Ben, you are a hard worker. One day, some boss is going to be very happy to have you.” I remember her exact words, tone, and the feeling it gave me.
Now, plenty of people told me (through lying teeth) that I was a good looking kid. And plenty of times, I double and triple checked myself in the mirror hoping to get that same praise one more time. But ever since that day working on the lawn, I have especially longed to be known for working hard. Thank you, Sandy, for teaching me through your affirming words to desire something that matters. (shout out to my parents too, they didn’t let me go without praise in this area as well).
I wonder how different the lives of children would have been if, this past Easter, we had praised them for qualities that mattered more than their matching outfits and charming faces. I wonder what qualities you will instill in the kids who are dear to you through your comments in the kitchen or on their facebook pictures?