The Feelings of Children
by Virginia Coigney
Very few adults respect the feelings of children. Generally, expressions of emotion on the part of the young are identified and dismissed as "childish" and thus of no importance. People who empathize with the feelings of minorities and women persist in insulting the feelings of children. Even the most radical among us is apt to come full halt at the idea of the validity of a child's feelings. Adults laugh at youthful attempts at love and friendship, and repress young efforts at touching and meeting. A child's tears are a common cause for amusement or anger. We say things to and about children that would be unthinkable were our victims "mature." We criticize the way the child looks and behaves. We call attention to faults and failures in a brutal stream of comment and we very often do so within the hearing of other adults or other children. We feel free to question a child's honesty, his dreams, his thoughts, and his friendships. In the latter instance we do not hesitate to analyze his associates to their, and by implication his, disadvantage. We express our opinions about him, and all that is his, without pity. Furthermore, we ask him to believe that we say these things for his own good. Since children live in a state more of guilt than of grace, we may assume that they believe a good deal of what we tell them.
Yet it isn't difficult to run up a list of things that lead both adults and children to rage and sometimes tears. Jealousy, lovelessness, fear, feelings of inadequacy, unjust criticism, plans gone awry, threats, violence, loss of a valued object. What makes such circumstances matters of great seriousness when they occur among adults and unimportant when experienced by children is difficult to see, and yet the answer is painfully obvious. The distinguishing factor is power. Children's feelings are less important because they have little power. Like prisoners or suppressed minorities or dependent women, they get their power by association and often by the difficulties they can create.
The child's status, like that of the dependent wife, is generally determined by those "others" who have power. Prison society establishes similar caste systems, as do minority organizations, ironically duplicating the power structure of the dominant classes. The white world thus becomes careful of black feelings as a direct response to black achievement of power; a power admittedly built on fear of violent revolution. Prison reform is less for its own sake than it is a placation. So, too, discussion of the rights of children becomes possible in an atmosphere marked by an increasing fear and distrust of the young.
The idea of respect becomes equated with weakness in the relationship between adults and children. It is as though the adult world feels perpetually at risk in some symbolic struggle. To keep from being at the mercy of the child, the adult must at all costs maintain control. Expressions of respect are as inconsistent with this necessity as they are in racism or sexism. In all three, the function of control is to retain power. The favored method of domination is a substantive reduction of humanity, the most popular aspect of which is the invalidation of feeling. The quality of "childishness" as an attribute or accusation is frequently leveled against "inferior" individuals or groups and infantilizing is a long and honored-in-the-practice technique of ensuring harmlessness.
To deny the validity of children's feelings is to reject their humanity. If we are to admit children to the kingdom of "real people," if we are to respect them and value their individuality and their uniqueness, we must, of course, set them free. Only insofar as we can convince ourselves and them of their subhuman qualities can we maintain our control over them. If they are little animals, irrational and potentially dangerous to themselves as well as to others, we can ignore their needs when their interests are contrary to our own.
And it is on the altar of self-interest that we must finally sacrifice our pretensions about our feelings for children. The child is considered unreasonable and irrational when he makes demands that we are unable to meet or prefer to ignore. Yet, compared to adults, the irrationality among children is not especially noteworthy. On the contrary, the cause and effect of childhood demands are models of mathematical elegance. On those occasions when their demands are "unreasonable," the needs that inspire "irrationality" are not. It is to their needs we claim to be attending and it is scarcely a recent discovery that adequately met needs displace unreasonable demands just as surely as inadequately met needs create them.
One might be tempted to attribute adult impatience with the feelings of children to the rapidly stepped-up tempo of modern life. Perhaps simpler societies and extended families provided time to listen to children. Today cocktails are being served in the hour made famous by Longfellow,1 and among the affluent as well as the disadvantaged, assorted anxieties occupy the attentions of crisis-oriented adults. The exigencies of modern life prevent many adults from hearing what the children are saying. The child who must express rage in order to gain attention has become a familiar behavior problem. More acceptable, but, of course no less injured, is the child who has learned to repress, conceal, and distort his feelings in order to protect them from ridicule or denial. Historically, the preoccupation with child control rather than child development seems to be independent of the complexities of life. Until recently, development and control were synonymous. The Romans, the Ancient Greeks, the Bible: myriad sources emphasized the importance of controlling the child and youth. By the sixteenth and early seventeenth century, parents were deemed responsible for the bodies and souls of their offspring, but it was not until the latter half of the seventeenth century, with the rejection of the rights of primogeniture, that the idea of "fairness" to children was expressed.
By the late 1700s, diaries and letters had begun to express love for family and in particular for children, although that "love" was primarily directed at their health and education. The attention to the feelings of children is reflected in this exchange from General de Martagne's letters to his wife:
…I should sell my last shirt, if I had nothing else, to see my children on the same level as all the others of their age and rank. They must not be brought into the world to humiliate us with their ignorance and behavior. I think of nothing else, my dear, but of repairing my fortune to ensure their happiness, but if they wish to ensure mine, they must work hard and not waste time.2
Over 200 years have passed. Little has changed except perhaps the extent of family ambitions.
Anyone can know how children feel. They feel pretty much as we do.
Today's parent wishes to give his children at least as much as the neighbors' children and, with a little luck, a lot more. There remains intact, however, the child's role as a reflection of the family's status and worth, as well as the invisible contract whereby the parents' sacrifice is repaid by the work and behavior of the child. Today's parent is surely no less concerned. The child development question of most interest to parents now, as then, is discipline. The child who will not "mind" is an indescribable threat to the parent. He is a source of irritation and rage - and often a blind rage at that. Perfectly intelligent, well-balanced men and women turn to screaming hysterics in the face of a child's intransigence. A visit to any park or playground will give both credence to the prevalence of a dislike for children and a reason for it. Children are stubborn. Children are uncontrollable. Children are unreasonable. Children are irritating and difficult, all of which is a way of saying that children very often do not readily do what adults wish them to do. Even a modicum of common sense would lead one to expect this to occur with predictable frequency, and yet the anger evoked is so out of proportion as to call for a more serious examination. What actually is at stake for the adult when his authority is flaunted by a child? Why is his anger so disproportionate?
Conversations with a number of young fathers and mothers produced the following:
"You can't walk away. If you have an argument with another adult or your husband or someone you can leave the room or the house or even just go away. You can end the relationship. With a child you're trapped... it's the ultimate responsibility."
"When a child disobeys, it makes your feel so powerless."
"I think you get jealous. Jealous of the child's freedom to let go or do what he wants to while you have responsibilities you have to take care of."
"It's the old unwritten contract. I have agreed to take care of you and in return you will do what I say. When the child breaks the contract, you get pretty angry."
"It's the irrationality of the child... it's frightening, like something insane. No cause and effect. You know it's more terrible when a man is squashed by a safe falling out of an upstairs window than when a man falls out of a boat and is drowned. He's dead in either case, but in the first it is irrational - he did nothing to cause it."
"It's postponed anger. A sort of overreaction because it's been saved up."
"I get angry with my child because he's made me angry rather than because of what he's done."
"If you believe it's the child's job to behave, you get angry because you're doing your job and he isn't doing his. It's unfair."
"It's easier if you believe in spanking. That way you explode, release your anger, give him the out for his guilt, and it all subsides. You have better control that way."
"If you believe your job is to educate the child, then when you become angry you feel you've blown the show and you get angry on top of your anger."
"I get scared of my own anger and I think sometimes I get hysterical as a result not of what the child has done but of my anger."
"It's worse than being angry at another adult. The other adult acts as a brake on your anger. You know you won't go out of control. The other adult won't let you. With a child you get scared. He's too helpless to control you and you are scared as to where your anger might lead you."
Excessive anger can give the parent an unwelcome glimpse of his own childishness, as some of these responses suggest. He stands - driven by rage - on the brink of his own remembered helplessness. Or, he may be made only too well aware of the insecurities of his everyday life. The child's refusal to accept authority is a sharp reminder of the parent's daily helplessness - in work, in marriage, in so many relationships.
Not the least of the threatening qualities of children is their unpredictability. It is our awareness of their barely controlled energy that seems to threaten us. The child may not choose to play by the adult rules. He may, in fact, not know what the rules are but prefer to do it his way, as children very often insist on doing. This is frightening, for the rules we have concocted often hold together our personalities as well as our lives. It is a fear of impending violence not only to our persons but to the fabric of our lives that we often feel in the presence of the vaguely harnessed power of the adolescent; a power at once sexual and anarchistic. It is a display of an energy we have mastered, perhaps destroyed. We cannot endure to feel its emanations in our children. It is the child's anarchy we must repress and, failing, fear. In the threatened absence of our protective rules, we fear to stand revealed and therefore vulnerable before our children and each other.
Anyone can know how children feel. They feel pretty much as we do. Perhaps that's the problem. Perhaps we cannot respect the feelings of children because we have never learned to respect our own feelings, especially our feelings about children.
Between the dark and the daylight,
When the night is beginning to lower,
Comes a pause in the day's occupations,
That is known as the Children's Hour. - Henry Wadsworth Longfellow,
from "The Children's Hour"
2 General de Martagne's letters to his wife, 1760-1780, as quoted in Aries, Philippe, Centuries of Childhood.
Reprinted from Coigney, Virginia, Children Are People Too: How We Fail Our Children and How We Can Love Them, Chapter 4. New York: William Morrow and Co., 1975.