Sensational Living®

July 2004
© 2004 by Bret S. Beall


Throughout my life, I have had what some might call an “iffy” relationship with children. Interestingly, although I don’t have any children of my own, I have often had reasons to interact with children (as a paleontologist, I found myself dealing with children on an almost daily basis). Once my friends started procreating, I soon became “Uncle Bret” (and other, more colorful appellations).

I was always amazed that children would “take” to me so quickly. I could never understand this phenomenon, because I just did not see myself in that “child-rearing” mode at all. I asked one of my long-term friends whose kids had taken a shine to me, and she said, “You treat them like people. You talk TO them. You listen TO them. You don’t dismiss them.” It never occurred to me NOT to do those things.

Perhaps it was because my mother always listened to me. And, she always lobbied on my behalf when other adults didn’t want me around. Admittedly, sometimes I think she may have overdone that particular lobbying; adults are not under any obligation to humor children all the time, and “adult-only” talk is perfectly acceptable/appropriate. Still, such situations can be handled with dignity and respect, or they can be handled with humiliation and authoritarianism.

As a child, I always thought that adults must be perfect. That included teachers, coaches, parents, and anyone else in a position of authority. We are taught from an early age to respect our elders because of their age and “wisdom” (well, that used to be taught; I’m not so sure, anymore). Now, not to be disrespectful (ah, shuck, yes, that’s exactly what I’m being), once I began to actually identify/experience explicit acts and statements of stupidity on the part of figures of authority, I began losing that respect I was told to have for them.

Of course, if these “authorities” had tempered their stupidity with respect for others, I’m sure I might be writing a different column. But, we had two different concepts interfering with any tempering. The first was arrogance: if one is older, one is smarter. Well, that might make some sense, but it’s wrong. Yeah, I was precocious, and when an adult insists that he is right and you, a child, are wrong, and the adult sets out to “prove” it, and then proves himself wrong (Mr. Polly, my seventh grade math student teacher, this is for YOU: the word is “height,” NOT “heighth”), one loses respect for authority VERY fast.

The other contributing concept is fear: we (adults) fear our own inadequacies, so we posture in front of others. It’s easier to posture in front of children, so children often get exposed to such silly behavior more than others. Sometimes the silliness is SO obvious that there can be no redemption for the poseur (I made some of my elementary school teachers, particularly male teachers, physically sputter when they tried to intimidate me and I wouldn’t be intimidated). While most of my teachers considered me a joy, a few considered me their worst nightmare … that which we fear, usually irrationally.

Of course, another factor contributed to my childhood behavior toward authority, and that was seeing a growing social movement espousing us to “question authority.” Surely I’m dating myself here, but this entire movement is a direct response to lack of respect by figures of authority. Until the mid 1960s, our government leaders were given our explicit and implicit trust. However, the Vietnam War was a catalyst whose purpose many questioned. As data began to become available, the public could quickly see that the government had lied to it. In essence, the government had treated the public like children, lying to them and not treating them with respect. That betrayal of trust is what led to the “question authority” movement.

This was about the time that people began to realize that respect had to be earned. Please do NOT interpret this to mean that we should not respect a child or an adult until they have proven themselves worthy of respect. Rather, grant respect until given reason to evoke it … and then evoke it! Once a position of authority is misused, and trust is betrayed, respect is difficult to regain. Think about it.

This “question authority” movement was also commensurate with some experiments in child rearing coupled with research into child development. Although some of the earliest experiments/research were too extreme, the goal was to avoid the dogma of the 1950s and early 1960s to give children a chance to flourish and develop naturally. As I said, some of those efforts were a little extreme, and led to confusion between “respecting Johnny and Jenny,” and “letting Johnny and Jenny fend for themselves like animals.”

If you respect children, you are acknowledging their individual, unique needs. Maybe I see this so clearly because my background is in evolutionary biology, and I know that it is the job of parents to rear their young until they can “really” fend for themselves, teach their young and protect their young and guide their young, and then let their young move on. I will not engage in a discussion regarding the differences between humanity and other species of animals; you will just have to accept my explicit biases. The issue at hand here is the degree to which parents are doing their jobs, and the degree to which they are shunting those responsibilities off on others (schools, churches, family, neighborhood, etc). It boils down to a lack of respect for their own children, which in turn derives from a lack of respect for themselves.

There seems to be a consensus that having a child (or many children) is a right. May I propose a gedanken (thought) experiment (not original with me): What would happen if we thought of having a child as a privilege, one that had to be earned by demonstrating a certain amount of knowledge and hands-on training? What if a couple or individual had to receive a license prior to getting pregnant? Let’s ignore logistics for the moment, as what I want to do is enhance a sort of paradigm shift, away from where people seem to think that they “deserve” children (to be honest, I doubt that much “thinking” is involved in the pregnancy process, on average, with the exception of people like my friends who have spent thousands of dollars and hours both in fertilization therapy, and in adoption applications … the results of these latter activities are loved and cherished children who will be respected).

I’m not really proposing licensing pregnancy; our bodies are our own. But I am proposing education. Lots of it. I am proposing lifting the veil on sexuality, and treating it as the biological phenomenon it is, coupled with sociological and psychological data. I remember my high school sexuality class was based entirely on stereotypes. Now we have people so afraid of sexuality that even stereotypes can’t be taught. Is the goal to have a generation of sexually ignorant citizens?

I’ve now become political, and need to back off. The goal here is to respect our children. They are our most important natural resource and national treasure. And their proper rearing is the foundation upon which the future of our world rests. Any child who grows up thinking s/he is respected will not suffer from self-esteem issues, will not commit crimes, and will not commit acts of terrorism.

Respect is the key.

I try to show my respect for you, the reader, by minimizing opinion and maximizing fact. I also make my respect explicit by providing you with a means to contact me (despite some annoying spam as a consequence: 773.508.9208 or email me. Be healthy and happy … and respectful!