Controlling Children’s Words and Emotions

On a trip to Trader Joe’s with the youngest child in my life when he was two, he saw a staff person blowing up balloons and wanted a blue one. We approached the staff person and I said, “could we have a blue balloon?” The person looked at me and said “what is the magic word?”

I was taken aback. Of course, I have heard this phrase, or others like it, directed at children on far too many occasions. I felt angry, humiliated and incredibly frustrated. I felt this rush of emotions and I was the adult to whom that statement was directed. I know I must have been told this as a child, though I have no memory of it. I can only imagine how children feel being treated this way because of the enormous power differential between adults and children. The irony for me is that we encourage adults to be rude to children all in the name of teaching children what it means to be polite.

“Civilizing” Children

Children are told how and what to say by those who have power over them. Our socialization directs us to “civilize” children so that they can behave appropriately and politely in adult society. Our obligation as adults in this dominant paradigm is to ensure that children learn what is expected of them from our culture. I have even heard older children enforcing these expectations on younger children. Children can very quickly internalize the oppression they experience and in turn impose it on others who are younger and less powerful than they are.

This control in what and how children speak the truth of their experiences goes far beyond requiring them to say “please” and “thank you.” When children express strong emotions, such as anger or frustration, even sadness, adults will attempt to trivialize or shut down those expressions. Sometimes adults will “let” children cry for a short period of time, but if it goes beyond what the adult considers appropriate, children are told, “Okay, that is enough. Stop crying now!”

Honoring Emotional Expressions

Although I do not remember being told to say the “magic word,” I learned quickly as a child that adults wanted to me to act happy and like everything was fine, even if it wasn’t. I knew when the children in my life were born, that I wanted them to stay connected to their feelings and to be free to express whatever those emotions were. I hoped to counter societal expectations based on gender.

Despite my desire, I still fight my own socialization. There are times when their sadness or anger make me uncomfortable and I want them to stop expressing themselves. I can become uncomfortable when they talks too long to an adult who seems to want to go do something else. I have experienced my share of triggers around the ways of they express themselves.

Now that the children in my life developed language and express their desires and needs verbally, I often have to remind myself that my obligation as a parent is to facilitate THEIR processes, not control their actions, despite what other adults, society, and our socialization may say about my role. I also know that my discomfort is the result of my own oppression as a child and my being forced to conform to what my parents and society expected of me.

Naming our Experiences

One of our most powerful drives as humans, is our need and our ability to name our experiences. We are able to act and reflect on experiences in our lives and we want to share that “naming” with others. We have the power of speech and we have the ability to think about our past and learn from those experiences. As Paulo Freire asserts in his book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, we co-create our world and our experiences through the process of dialogue with others.

At a fundamental level, as children develop the ability to speak, they have the drive to fulfill this human need to name their experiences. Very quickly, in our dominant society, they learn that their expressions are acceptable only when they are delivered in particular ways. Say please and thank you…no whining…no yelling…be polite…be respectful of adults…. We rob children of the right to speak in ways that have meaning for them and as a result we rob them of their humanity.

It seems one of our birthright as humans, when our needs for food, shelter, safety, and love have been met, is to be able to create, with others, what meaning our life experiences have for us. Speaking our own truths from our hearts, and having that be heard, and hearing those truths from the children in our lives is an amazing gift.

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