I want to speak up for a group of people that can’t really speak up for themselves. A group of little people. People who don’t get taken too seriously when they speak up. Because they’re “just” little kids.
(Hey you, if you saw this title and clicked on this post because you were excited to shame someone you know, to make them feel bad for not having “parenting” figured out, or excited to attack anyone, really, please just skip to the P. S. at the very bottom.)
I’ve looked for the words for this for a long time, sat on a draft for over a year, because I actually think this subject matters a lot, but I probably don’t know enough about it and definitely won’t do it justice. But I guess it matters enough to say it anyway–at least this morning it does.
Bradford was a sensitive little guy, maybe 6 years old. He had the cutest little dimples and the sweetest laugh. I remember Bradford’s face when someone poured water over his head one time. It didn’t seem like a big deal to the adult who poured water over his head, but it was a big deal to Bradford, and he cried. A lot. I don’t think that makes what the adult did bad. But I think when Bradford starts crying, that matters. I think when Bradford starts crying, it’s time to hear Bradford’s feelings, to care, to see him as a human with valid experiences and needs.
The problem is I think we very frequently discount all those experiences and needs, because Bradford is “just a kid.” So we laugh awkwardly about it when Bradford is crying–silly Bradford. He’s just not emotionally tough yet. He’s overreacting. He’ll get over it. It was pretty funny.
Grace is the youngest in her family, still young enough that her little big feelings aren’t too consequential for the grown ups in her life. So when Grace gets to orders onion rings, and saves them for last, and then begs her dad not to eat her onion rings, and then cries when he eats them anyway–this is all pretty insignificant. Grace, after all, is just a kid. She will get over it. Onion rings aren’t something to cry over.
There’s a little girl I know who has such a big heart and big smile, and those come along with big feelings. She is cute as can be, and like any toddler, she is learning how life works. A while ago I was watching and listening to her do and say something just outrageously adorable. Like, she doesn’t even know. And it made the grown ups around her proud. Made us laugh a beaming-affectionate type of laugh. But the little girl saw us laughing, and she suddenly got quiet. She looked very worried. It wasn’t fun anymore. Why were we laughing at her?
Trying to predict the feelings and reactions of a little kid is about as difficult as it is to predict the feelings and reactions of “grown ups” like the ones you work with. (Let’s be honest.) So I don’t fault anyone who unintentionally makes a little kid feel sad, scared, embarrassed, or picked on. It’s going to happen.
I do, though, care a lot about what happens when the little kid starts feeling sad, scared, embarrassed, or picked on. When their smile fades and their eyes start filling up.
When Bradford is an adult, I don’t think he’ll care as much about water getting dumped on his head. When Grace is an adult, she’d probably just buy herself her own onion rings and not let people steal them. And when that little girl watches videos someday of her adorable two-year-old self, I bet she’ll smile and laugh, too, self-consciousness gone.
But the fact that they’ll grow up not to care as much about that little thing doesn’t make their feelings now unimportant.
Really, what is the difference between a child feeling hurt and an adult feeling hurt? Why do we have to be considerate of the feelings of an adult, but not of a kid? Why do we have to be kind and respectful to an adult, but not really a kid? Time? Age? Do those change the value of the hurting person? No, I think when we think really honestly and carefully about this, the really big difference is that the little people can’t stick up for themselves. It’s okay for adults to tease and laugh at little kids for being weak and vulnerable. It’s okay for adults to be thoughtless or unkind to little kids. It’s okay because the kids will grow up and . . . not have scars? No, it’s okay because the adults are in charge.
Lots of times, adults absolutely care when their little one starts crying–here’s to you, that can be an exhausting job! But sometimes, it’s just that adults don’t care when something ends up hurting their kiddos. For some parents, it never ever matters what their kid “wants.” And I think more frequently than we’d like to admit, adults actually get to be downright mean and inconsiderate to their little kids.
I want to say this, but I want to say it carefully: Little kids learn big lessons about the world from their little big feelings. When their tears are funny to you, they grow up knowing that. Even worse, when their tears just have no significance to you, they grow up knowing that.
I want to say that carefully, because “they’ll have scars when they grow up” is only part of the reason little kids’ feelings matter. Someone’s future feelings shouldn’t really be a necessary motivator for valuing their now-feelings. People just matter. People’s hearts matter. Feelings matter. Whether those now-feelings are felt in 6-foot-2-inches of body or “just” 3-foot-9.
I know 3-foot-9 feelings can be unpredictable or irrational. But that’s really no excuse to write them off, because 6-foot-2 feelings are also unpredictable and irrational. (Have you met grown-ups?)
And I know sometimes, no matter how angry or sad or hungry or not-hungry or definitely-not-wanting-to-wear-pants your little kid is in the moment, you have to get them in their car seat, they have to swallow some nutrients, and they cannot watch TV all day. So they’ll cry, and even if you love them and value their feelings, you still have to take good care of them, and you still have to keep your sanity. More power to you, moms and dads, because I can’t even imagine . . .
But when I grow up, I’ll remember if you at least cared to not let my tiny heart be broken unnecessarily. I’ll remember if you ever accepted or affirmed my emotions. I’ll remember if you thought they were funny or annoying instead of real. I’ll remember if my feelings never matter.
And honestly, that should matter before I grow up, too.
So remember to put yourself in your kid’s place, sometimes. To imagine what their feeling. To listen to what they’re feeling.
I’m no expert. I’m not a developmental psychologist. So maybe I’m wrong.
But I was “just a kid” once.
“Children’s emotions are as real as yours. Just because they might get sad over the colour of their cup, does not make their feelings any less real.” – Rebekah Lipp
P. S. One reason this post took so long for me to write is that I cannot imagine the challenge, the responsibility, and the pain of trying to be a “good parent.” We all screw up at just about everything sometimes, and you’re no more a monster for sometimes getting it wrong with a kid than you are for sometimes getting it wrong with the grown-ups in your life. This isn’t a you-should-feel-bad post, and please don’t use it that way, against yourself or against others. It’s just a please-see-your-kid reminder. I just wish you and your kiddo the best!