Authority for Authority’s Sake

Kids are people, too.


The article takes as its starting incident a scene where the child wants water, and the parent grows angry. In the comment section, someone “helpfully” explains why parents have ever right to grow angry in this situation. I wanted to share it: “Also, wanting water is a classic sign of testing the boundaries… first it will be water, then water and toilet, then water, toilet and PBJ sandwich… you get the idea! When I say goodnight to my children, it means bed. No if’s, but’s or maybe’s. Our responsibilities as parents is to teach our children the way the world works – not to pander to their every demand.”

I’m always surprised when people describe the world this way, as a cruel and harsh place. My experience so far of it hasn’t been overwhelmingly positive, but I have tended to notice that if you want water, you can get water. And if you want water before bedtime as an adult, you can almost certainly grab a glass (unless you live in Flint…) There are few situations, either at work or at school, where if you need water you can be legally denied it for long by someone in a position of authority over you. So I seriously struggle sometimes to relate to these people, who see “the way the world works” as one that involves shutting up, sitting down, accepting unfair treatment from an arbitrary source of arbitrary commands. I struggle even more seriously to imagine, moreover, why they want the world to be this way, or at least why they are so willing to accept it as this way.

Of course, I imagine some of this has to do with class. Certain jobs involve quite a bit less leisure (no duh!), and they often are the jobs where it’s easiest to fire someone for something stupid, like wanting water. But what bothers me is that this parenting style is used across the board, not just by parents whose jobs literally would withhold water, and sometimes the children being taught that you can withhold water /end up in a position of authority/. We are training children, then, from the very beginning to act with malice, or at least to act without compassion.

We make the world crueler when we teach our children to accept and expect cruelty. We are responsible, then, for how the world works at its worst, because we contribute to these prevailing ideas of fortitude, conditioning, and outright cruelty.

Like, I do, I really do understand the desire to police your child, to rule them without “if’s, but’s or maybe’s”. But even beyond the fact that I think it makes the world crueler to do so, I don’t understand where their overriding feeling of moral clarity comes from. How do you justify impinging on someone else’s autonomy, deciding on their behalf when they’re hungry and when they’re thirsty. It might help to teach a lesson, maybe, but do you really have the right to do so? And from where does that right come? There’s no world in which I would withhold water from a friend who’s spending the night, even if I wanted to teach them some esoteric lesson on the fecund workings of life, nor would I deny my partner a glass of water, no matter the consequences. I can understand giving into expedience when times are hard—and with a child, times are almost always hard—and saying that there’s no other way to get by but to make those decisions for them. I wouldn’t agree, but I would understand. What strikes me as so dangerous, though, is the idea that parents have the /moral right/ to withhold food, water, a trip to the washroom, not because it’s expedient, but in order to make a point.

You could make an argument here that a parent’s job is to prepare their child for the world, no matter the consequences. But even as I respect such a position, I think it misses out on the fact that /your child is already living in the world/ and their experiences now matter, inherently, just as much as their experiences in ten or fifty years will matter. Each and every moment, whether of infancy or of adulthood, is not preparation for the future, but a moment in its own right. So I have to imagine there must be ways to teach lessons with effect, but without force, ways that would involve a concern for the experience of your child now, today, at this moment. Because, ultimately, the future cannot be taken for granted, we all might die in a nuclear holocaust, and so in effect these are the only moments you can truly control. I hate the thought of wasting them in pursuit of some higher plan, especially when that plan contributes toward a world of nuclear holocaust (however indirectly).

When I was a child, I wasn’t pandered to at bedtime, mind you. My parents would say goodnight, and from then on, I had to stay in the bedroom unless I had a really good reason. (Not that there were overt punishments for leaving. But it was understood that I wouldn’t.) And I’m sympathetic to that approach, because I do see its efficacy. What scares me, however, is the suggestion that parents ought to behave this way, without exception, in order to toughen up our children. While there’s a fine line to be kept in order to avoid spoiling, in order to avoid coddling, I think we really need a revolution of thought when it comes to kids. We need a kinder world, not a harsher one. We need softer adults, not harder ones. Furthermore, they’re not objects, they’re not our possessions, we are not their destiny makers or their dictatorial overlords. When you decide to pluck a consciousness from the well of nothingness, you take on the responsibility to treat your child with the same decency and respect you would give an adult, I think. That respect might take different forms, and it might be limited by your responsibilities as an adult and as a parent, and for sure sometimes there may be a reason to curtail debate or to limit their voice in a matter. But when I hear people talk about the trauma they inherited from their parental relations, so often it’s because their parents—from the very beginning—did not respect them as entities or as people. Besides, then, the lack of moral right to treat children like objects, to treat them fundamentally without empathy or at least respect for their own experience and autonomy, I see the painful repercussions of this. We break our children when we treat them this way; we raise them to disregard the needs of others and we create in them a seed of distrust for their own parents, a feeling that they were not esteemed their own degree of personhood or, more simply, were disrespected outright.

And yet, generation after generation, we reinscribe the same patterns onto our own children. Partially, because it’s easier to treat children as inconveniences and to imagine our own petty acts come from concern for their future. Partially, because it’s all so easy to accept a cultural myth, even when it lacks any kind of moral logic. But as for the former, if we really care about our kids, we have to do more for them than act as cold arbitrators of when they can drink water—we must model for them a deeper kind of compassion and mutual respect for other people. These values are undertaught, undervalued indeed, by so many parents, and you can tell when you go out into the world the sheer depths of apathy and cruelty that people take for granted as inevitable or just. This is what I think of when I read stories of customers behaving badly or of flight attendants acting harshly—that we have created and contributed to a culture where it is not only expected but demanded of us that we ignore other people’s experiences, even from the cradle.

We must do better.

And that starts with imaging our children and their lives complexly and fully respecting their concerns and requests as we would a coworker, client, or friend. That doesn’t mean pandering to them, and it certainly doesn’t mean trying to realize every passing fantasy they may possess, but it does mean giving them a glass of water if they ask for it. Because if that’s where you’ve rampantly decided to draw your boundaries, then I pity your heart and your soul—as well as your child and their future self.

In short: Kids are people, too.

(As an aside, when I was a child, I suffered from really bad tinnitus. And it wasn’t until this last year actually that I finally explained to my dad why I had wanted to have the TV on during bedtime when I was younger. At the time, I wasn’t interested in watching things or staying up, but the buzzing in my ears was so bad that I would toss and turn and be unable to sleep. I even offered to cover the screen with a sheet just so I could have the noise without the picture. Eventually, my parents gave in without realizing what was actually wrong, thinking that I was just another kid wanting to watch TV, but so I think about all the subtle ways that our societal bedtime policies are ableist and assume that everyone is physically the same. I had no idea that a buzzing in the ears wasn’t normal, no idea that other people heard silence, and so I didn’t even try to explain. But I am so, so glad they accommodated me anyway.)

It’s Hard for Them, Too

We talk a lot about how hard it is to be a mom. But this week is “The Week of the Young Child,” and I’d like to acknowledge how hard it is to be a child.

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