Would you get your hands off my child, please? How would you like me to poke you in the belly? Want me to try and tickle you? Maybe I’ll insist you hug me and not take no for an answer? I’m sure we both think not.
Even the most well-intentioned adults around me lately have let me down. Sure, our daughter is off-the-charts-cute. Not just in the parents-always-think-their-kid-is-cute kind of way, she’s simply gorgeous by most objective standards. She’s also very small for her age with a huge head and huge eyes. Just calls out to the mother in most every person (male and female) she meets.
Why is it, though, so few adults on this earth seem to have a clue that children are people?
I heard the beginning of a great This American Life on the subject of “talking to children.” It began with interviews with children about what annoyed them most about adults talking to them. The children were obviously older than Maya (she’s 4 and a half), but they are still putting up with some of the same shit.
Adults seem to flail around wanting to say the right thing, thinking there’s some kind of code language children speak. The adults get goo-goo gah-gah when talking to them. Really sing-songy. Trying to connect, they instead treat the child as some kind of stuffed fluffy toy who might enjoy being bent this way or that.
Maya even has a defensive “cutsie wootsie” mode she goes into where she swings herself all around, hanging on to my legs, looking up in an almost flirting coy sort of way that shocked the hell out of me the first time she did it. I asked her after why she was behaving that way (didn’t say it was wrong, but was surprised) and she told me that when people talk to her in baby talk, she just wants to do that. The goo-goo-gaa-gaa talking tone that grownups often take with her sometimes slips past me until she begins her little “I’m just cute” dance behind my legs.
Some advice to those of you who really, truly would like to communicate with that little person in the shopping cart in front of you at the market? You are looking at a small person. An individual. A human being.
They like smiles, but feel weird if you stare at them too much. Sure, if they’re very small infants (not holding themselves up, yet), they might like a little peek-a-boo. For any child, though, your best bet is to just imagine children are just small adults.
Speak in your regular voice. Bring up something you might bring up to an adult if you were going to be so outgoing and bold as to talk to a stranger at the market. Perhaps you might comment on the pretty flowers nearby, or compliment an article of clothing the person is wearing. Maybe you, too, enjoy sweets, so you could empathize with the experience of enjoying a lollipop (that surely some bank teller thrust into the child’s hand without regard to her parents’ wishes).
Think of how odd you’d feel if someone came up to you and started cooing, “Oh, you are so beeeeeautiful!” Sure, you might feel flattered. If you were available, you might hope to get lucky later that night. But, under most circumstances you might feel pretty freaked out.
Yesterday at Target I decided I needed to help out my little girl. I said, “When someone says something like that (a woman had just said over and over and over, “you are so beautiful! adorable! so cuuuuuuuute!”), they would love to hear you say, ‘thank you.’ What that means is you are telling them you appreciate they are trying to be kind. You don’t have to say anything, but a ‘thank you’ is probably what they are hoping for.”
Maya, like any normal human being, tends to freeze up in shock when these strangers begin gawgling all over here. And, no, she’s not “shy,” she just thinks you’re being really strange and it makes her a little confused and uncomfortable.
And, no, I’m not going to make her give you a hug even if you are a relative. I’m not going to expect her to kiss you or even accept a hug from you. I understand she’s so cute you want to gobble her up, but even her Father and I check in before we slobber all over her (most of the time).
Thankfully, my closest family dwells in the realm of respect. I think they may sometimes wish they could force the issue (LET GRAMPA HOLD YOU we all sometimes want to say). But they see clearly that Maya gives her affection and receives her affection on her terms (she loves being held by Grampa when she’s in the mood). Knowing her body is hers, that she decides who touches it, how, and when, may be one of her greatest (thus far, well-learned) lessons.
We’ll continue giving her tools for responding to adults who mean well but don’t have a clue. We’ll continue not forcing her to interact with strangers, and we’ll continue not expecting her to give hugs or kisses to anyone when she doesn’t want to. Without apology.
Once again, let me encourage you. The next time you are interacting with a child, try to imagine the roles reversed. Whatever you do or say to that child, what if someone did or said that to you? Would you be comfortable? How would you respond?
Because, seriously, the next time someone tries to tickle my child or tries to get her to say something to them (“come on, tell me about your little doggy-woggy-woo”) I might just haul off and slug them. Now that’s not a lesson I want to teach my cute as a button sweet as a plum little angel girl.