A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post entitled “Are You Raising An Entitled Child?” in which I looked at the qualities that trigger adults to label children “entitled” and the reasons such a position is ill-informed. Today, I’m going to talk about another dimension to the problem of misperceiving children’s motivations. I’m sure you’ve heard people speak of certain children as needing to “get their own way” in order to be happy, though I daresay we all know how nice it feels for things to go our way. That should be the first signal that there’s a problem. We know it’s lovely to have things go the way that makes us feel best, yet we criticize children for their very same, very normal, human desire.
This is childism, plain and simple, and it’s a paradox. On one hand, we won’t acknowledge children’s right to autonomy and agency. On the other hand, we expect more of children than we expect of ourselves. We place them in this impossible position, because we have relegated them to a position beneath us such that we don’t want them to be our equals and we also don’t want them to bother us. But, we can’t have it both ways. We have a couple choices. Either we pour goodness and gentleness into them when they’re little, so that they can gain wisdom, resilience, and empathy as they get older. Or, we order them around and hold them accountable to our impossible standards, preparing them for little more than compliance with an authority figure. Children can succeed because of our approach or in spite of it. The choice lies with us as caregivers.
Recently, in a group for caregivers of Autistic people, and I saw a brilliant commenter explain that the behaviors we’ve come to expect from children “not getting their way” are actually evidence of a difficult transition. The child meets a barrier to the thing they desire and they struggle with the change as well as the disappointment around it. What a wonderful insight! Children who are upset at “not getting their way” are, in fact, experiencing dysregulation due to a transition they were neither anticipating nor inviting. They simply weren’t ready. And, then, an adult effectively places the responsibility onto the child to self-regulate during and expertly navigate the upheaval of these moments of disappointment. Why not become part of the solution instead?
When children begin to demand that we bend to their desires, we need to listen. What are they asking for? Is it something we can provide? Have we been unreasonable in our expectations of them? Are we saying no because we don’t want to be bothered or is there a reason we have to say no that we can help our child understand? How can we respond empathetically whatever our decision might be?
Take this scenario for example.
Child: “I want another cupcake, please!”
Caregiver: “Not right now. We’ll have more tonight.”
*Child begins to dysregulate*
Child: *screaming and stomping* “I want another cupcake!!!”
If we view children as demanding, annoying underlings, the child in this scenario might look combative, entitled, even ridiculous. But, if we see what’s really happening, that the child met an unexpected barrier and does not have the tools to work through it, we can offer real, lasting help.
Caregiver: “Oh! I can see how much you want another cupcake! They are yummy. It’s really hard to wait when you see some cupcakes left over and you want one of them.”
*Caregiver might offer a hug, deep breaths, some time outside, or other calming strategy*
Caregiver: “Since there are just enough left for our family to share this evening at suppertime, I was hoping to put them aside until then. Would you like to have your cupcake now or would you like to have it with us later on?”
It doesn’t matter how the child responds here. That’s really the point. Children have a right to input on decisions that affect them. There will be times when the answer is simply no and we will need to stay with our children to offer empathy and support. But, the reality is that no is all too often our kneejerk reaction to a question from a child, any child really. We come up with all sorts of reasons to deny children even the simplest choices. If we can make these difficult transitions easier, especially when we can yield control over a child’s decisions to that child, why not go for it? We’d all be better off if we trusted each other to make age-appropriate decisions and jumped to empathy before judgment.