My Children Talk to Strangers

Yes. You read that title correctly. In fact, my children are encouraged to talk to strangers under most circumstances.

Today I took all four children (by myself – whew!) to a local grocery store where they have a children eat free night once a week. While I was waiting for our food at the deli, my children asked and were given permission by me to go and sit down in the seating area, with the general admonitions to stay together and to actually stay sitting once they found a place to sit.

So, anyhow, when our food was ready I paid for it and headed over to the seating area to find my 6 year old daughter chatting happily with a lady who was wearing her baby in a ring sling, the way I wear my little babies. I smiled at both the lady and my daughter while I continued about 10 feet away to the table where my other daughters were sitting, waiting expectantly for their food, which I delivered to them while also half listening to my 6 year old talking to the lady about her baby brother.

About five minutes later, my 6 year old joined us at our table and began eating. When they were all settled in with their food, my 8 year old started telling me about the lady they had talked to so I asked them a few questions. We have talked a bit about strangers, but I don’t really teach about “stranger danger” and I wanted my girls to have an opportunity to evaluate why they all had felt comfortable talking to this lady.

My first question: “Why did you feel comfortable and safe talking to the lady with the baby?”

I got several different answers, “Because she seemed nice.” “She had a baby.” “I liked her.”

Great! I told them that listening to that feeling inside them is one of the most important things they can do when deciding whether or not to talk to someone. I reminded them that any adult – not just a stranger – who asks them for help or tells them to do something without telling me, is probably not safe and they should let me know immediately about anyone who does those things. I reminded them that if they ever do get that feeling about someone, then they should, what? “Tell you or Papa!” there was a chorus of voices answering that question. That was an easy one.

I want my children to be comfortable interacting with people in public. They will be doing that for the rest of their lives, after all. Besides, anyone can become “not a stranger” simply by introducing themselves and it isn’t just “strangers” who are dangerous for children. Most of the time, children are abused by people who are very well known to them and to their parents.

That last point bears repeating: Most of the time, children are abused by people who are very well known to them and to their parents.

Because of that, I want my children to be very attuned to their “gut feelings” about people. We don’t force our children to hug or even to talk to people whom they are uncomfortable hugging or talking to. They have ownership over their bodies and they need to be able to say “no” now in order to effectively say “no” when they’re older and maybe getting pressured by dates or meeting people who might not have their best interests at heart.

So far, so good. This lesson about trusting their intuitions and watching out for “tricky” adults, along with the many other lessons they’ve had about “secret touching” and the teachings of proper terminology for body parts will hopefully help my children both in the short and long runs as they navigate a sometimes hostile world.

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Judging Parents by Their Own Behavior

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Subtitle: Parents Behaving Badly

There’s a trend in our society that has always bothered me somewhat. We compliment parents when their children are well-behaved and we, likewise, condemn them when their children are ill behaved. Given that nobody can completely control anyone else’s behavior, why aren’t we judging the parents on their own behavior instead of on the behavior of their children?

Yes, parents absolutely do need to be teaching their children how to behave in public and how to handle themselves in various situations, but the idea that one person (even a parent) either can or should have such complete control over another person (even a child)’s behavior is just a bit troubling to me. Teaching someone is not the same thing as controlling them is and when we judge parents by their children’s behavior, there seems to be an implicit assumption that the parents should be controlling those children and keeping them under control!

Before even mentioning any practical issues regarding children and their behavior in public, I think that it’s important to recognize that children are people too. They have good days and bad days. They have days when they eat too much sugar, too little food, or miss a nap and go bonkers in the grocery store or other public place. Children, just like adults, are prone to lose their tempers, get grumpy, become frustrated, and lash out.

Children also possess far less impulse control than adults do, which is why it rather puzzles me that we, as a society, seem to expect children to behave even better in public than we expect their parents to behave.

Often, children’s inappropriate behavior is precipitated by an unwise decision on the part of the parents (like taking a young child shopping during naptime), but we should hold the parents accountable for their unfortunate decision rather than the reaction of their child to the parents’ ill conceived decision (a possible meltdown or tantrum during the aforementioned naptime shopping trip).

Truly, I think that this expectation, that parents should be “in control” or “controlling” their children’s behavior causes a lot of bad behavior on the part of parents themselves. In an effort to show their children as well as everyone around them that they are “in control” or “doing something about” their children’s bad behavior, parents will often resort to threats or even physical violence against their children.

Public threats and physical violence are not something that we tolerate from any other group of people other than parents when the threats and physical violence (spanking) are directed at their children.

Why is this? Why is it socially acceptable for parents to lose their tempers and threaten and yell at or even hit their children in public?

I think it’s because we, as a society, also believe that such threats and violence establish the parents’ appearance of “control” over their children, which is more acceptable to us than seeing children behaving like children and being taught respectfully how to behave in public or being removed from a situation when it has proven to be too much for them at this time.

I think that it would be more productive for parents to be judged by their own behavior. I’d far rather see a parent calmly handling the issue of a tantrum-ing child in public, trying to figure out the underlying issue and treating the child with respect, than to see a parent lose control themselves while dealing with an out of control child.

How can we expect children to exhibit self-control in public most or all of the time when we, as parents, cannot even exhibit perfect self-control in public all of the time?

Practically speaking, I don’t believe we can.

I think that we need to have more grace and patience for children in public situations. I think that we need to recognize that they are people and that when their basic needs aren’t met, they are going to react badly to situations, just as any adult would except more so because they don’t have the impulse control or experience to handle situations as well as adults should be able to.

I think that we need to better support parents in teaching their children with grace and patience so that they don’t feel the need to react in a heavy-handed manner to their children’s childish behavior, whether in public or private.

In somewhat related news, I rather enjoyed this article by the Onion this week. Sometimes there’s just so much truth in satire… 😉

Parents’ Prayer (author credited below)

I found this prayer posted on the Gentle Christian Mothers message board and wanted to share it because I find it to be very inspiring and a nice reminder of what I hope to achieve as a parent. The lady who posted it on the message board got the author’s permission to post it and I’m sure he won’t mind my posting it again. I hope it inspires someone else!

“O Heavenly Father, make me a better parent. Teach me to understand my children, to listen patiently to what they have to say, and to answer all their questions kindly. Keep me from interrupting them or contradicting them. Make me as courteous to them as I would have them be to me. Forbid that I should ever laugh at their mistakes or resort to shame or ridicule when they displease me. May I never punish them for my own selfish satisfaction or to show my power. Let me not tempt my children to lie or steal. And guide me hour by hour that I may demonstrate by all that I say and do that honesty produces happiness. Reduce, I pray, the meanness in me. And when I’m out of sorts, help me, O Lord, to hold my tongue. May I ever be mindful that my children are children and I should not expect of them the judgment of adults. Let me not rob them of the opportunity to wait on themselves and to make decisions. Bless me with the bigness to grant them all their reasonable requests and the courage to deny them privileges I know will do them harm. Make me fair and just and kind and fit, O Lord, to be loved and respected and imitated by my children. Amen.”

Fr. Anthony Coniaris
from Making God Real in the Orthodox Christian Home

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