Wednesday, January 15, 2014

turn down your stereo(types): the kids are listening

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As parents and teachers, we think we know everything about kids. We have our adult language and our adult conversations that don't include them, and we think we are adept at carrying all of this on in their presence without detection. 

When they were small, we could spell things out when we didn't want them to understand what we were saying. We could mouth sentences over their heads, gesticulate behind their backs, hide presents in the closet, and have the tough conversations after they went to bed. We always assumed they didn't catch on. 

Well, guess what? They did. Even when they were small.
They might not have understood every word. They might not have understood the full impact or the full context. But they aren't stupid. They knew something was up. They just kept their mouths shut, because they knew if they spoke up or asked questions there might be consequences. One of which was we would stop speaking our "secret code" around them and they would miss out on juicy tidbits of information.

When kids get to about 10 or so, depending on their maturity and their level of naivete, they start picking up on far more than we realize. By the time they are 13 and older, they have pretty much figured us out. And - surprise, surprise - they care what we think. 

They hear very clearly words we speak, even when we think we speak them softly in confidence, even when they seem too preoccupied to hear us. Their expression might not change and they might not challenge us, but they hear us.

They also hear the language we don't speak. They read the eye rolls, the expressions of doubt or judgment, the clicks of the tongue and the defensive body language. And you know what they assume first?

That our disapproval is all about them.


When we get to be adults, we think we have left our childish ways behind. But we haven't. All we have done is brought our prejudices, our stereotypes and our own high school insecurities into our grownup lives. We are just as critical of them as the worst adults were of us. If we were nerdy eggheads, we assume all athletes and cheerleaders are dumb and vapid . If we were athletes and cheerleaders, we assume all the nerdy eggheads are unpopular and lonely. Even when we get older and think we know better, we sometimes hang onto these stereotypes way past their expiration date.  

And we do all the things that we swore we would never do when we grew up. 

We criticize kids' attitudes. We question their choice of words and their choice of friends. We look askance at their activities. If we love science and math, we embrace the robotics club but think cheer leading is a frivolous activity and a waste of time. If we love athletics, we join the booster club but think debate club is just for dateless eunuchs. If we love literature and the arts, we put on plays and read poetry but roll our eyes when a fellow classmate gets excited about how many places of pi he can recite from memory. 

Oh, after college and post-college and professional training, we think we have our act together. We are mature now. We know so much. We understand today's youth and the challenges they face. We put on a good act that we are free from judgmental or critical attitudes. That our words only bring flowers and sunshine. That all our relationships are above-board and wholesome and useful.

We are full of crap. And kids know it.

Kids know when we judge them. They know when we hold them in something other than high esteem. They know when we criticize them individually or as a group. They know when we value one group or activity over another. They know the difference between being encouraged and being tolerated. And it impacts them more than we realize.

I know this because I have a 12 year old daughter and a 16 year old exchange daughter at home. They both see and hear things very clearly, have a healthy sense of justice, and have no problem communicating when things do and don't seem right. That includes situations at home and at school. 

Because, to repeat myself, you need to realize: They Hear More Than You Think.

They overhear authority figures making disparaging remarks about their peers and about other authority figures. They notice authority figures looking at them or their group of peers with an expression of disapproval. They recognize when authority figures demean their activities or their attire or their career goals. They see when we cut our eyes and whisper behind our hands and shake our heads and make judgements about them based on our own perverse stereotypes.

And when this happens, do you know what they think of that person? They think that adult is now less of an authority figure. Their stature is lessened and their character is tarnished. Instead of someone to be respected, they are someone to be suspected. 

Unfortunately, even though rationally they know this behavior by this particular adult is out of line, it still makes them feel small, makes them feel less important, makes them feel like they have no value. 

So take a lesson, class: If you are a parent, a teacher, a coach, an administrator, a youth leader, or anyone who deals with kids at all, please practice discretion. Don't talk about kids with other kids, or even with an adult where other kids can overhear you. 

Please look at our youth with a tolerant eye. Please be a shining example of justice and consideration and openness. And please - for heaven's sake! -  do not demean them by word or action or attitude, or cast your own petty insecurities on them. They have enough to deal with as it is. They want to respect us. Don't give them any reason to distrust us. 

We can all start by turning down our stereo-types. Everyone can hear them and they do not sound good. 

2 comments :

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