Competent Children: Part 3

Dr. Corinne Masur

Recently, Judith Shulevitz wrote in the New York Times that college campuses are now barring speakers who might “invalidate people’s experiences” or who might speak about the use of sexist or racist language. She described how “safe spaces” are being created at schools during such lectures where students can come to play with play doh or bubbles or listen to soothing music. She says, “safe spaces are an expression of the conviction, increasingly prevalent among college students, that their schools should keep them from being bombarded by discomfiting…viewpoints.”

What has happened to our society? When did college students stop being able to listen to various viewpoints, including discomfiting ones, and to and debate about these? And since when did words start to be equated with violence and trauma?

When Wendy Kaminer, an advocate for free speech, spoke at Smith College, she was accused of using an offensive, racist word. Her response in an e-mail was this: “It’s amazing to me that (students and faculty at Smith) can’t distinguish between racist speech and speech about racist speech.”

When we protect our children from racist/sexist/homophobic speech and from discussions about the use of this speech, we cut them off from the real world where such speech is used and from an understanding of the real world and the divergent forces within it. We cut them off from their own potential thoughts and from forming their own opinions about what goes on in the world and in their fellow human beings’ minds and experiences.

But again, where did the idea come from that children need to be so protected – that they need safe spaces and safe discussions? I think it starts at home. I think that many parents of current college age students may have felt that it was their job to protect their children from so many things – including what they deemed unpleasant speech and ideas. Rather than allowing their children to form their own opinions, they shut off certain avenues of experience in order to keep their children what they thought of as “safe.” Eric Posner, a professor at The University of Chicago Law School wrote on Slate last month that although universities cosset students more than they used to, that’s what they have to do because today’s college students are more puerile than their predecessors. He says, “Perhaps over programmed children engineered to the specifications of college admissions offices no longer experience the risks and challenges that breed maturity.”

This is frightening. We NEED to allow children to experience the world and to hear the language and the ideas of others. We need to let them build maturity and competence by working through their experiences and their emotions without so much “safety” that they fail to experience anything real.

Practical Ideas:

– Starting as early as your child is capable, talk about feelings – your child’s feelings, your own feelings, siblings’ feelings, and friends’ feelings.

– Around age 3, begin asking your child how he or she thinks other people feel about things.

– Around age 4 or whenever it comes up in discussion, start talking about how sometimes people say things that hurt other people’s feelings. Give your child examples. Ask your child if he or she has ever had his or her feelings hurt. Help your child to talk about this by giving him or her the words and the language to do so.

– Starting as early as 6 months, allow your child to experiment with physical tasks – lying on his or her belly, sitting up, crawling, walking, running, climbing (when appropriate) without rescuing him or her too soon. Let your child experience a bit of frustration. Let your child fuss a little when stuck or tired or bored. Don’t rush in with a snack when your child is hungry. Talk to him or her about being hungry first. Even if your child doesn’t like this, help him or her to recognize his or her feelings of discomfort. Continue to allow your child to explore the world in ways that are developmentally appropriate and present your child with challenging situations that he or she can grapple with over the course of childhood and adolescence.

– At age 5 or when it comes up, start talking about differences. Talk about how sometimes people can be mean to people who are different. Begin talking about mean words and language. Ask your child questions and let him or her answer with his or her own ideas and opinions.

– Don’t shy away from conversations about gender, race, or other differences. Ask more questions than you give answers. What does your child think about the idea that two mommies could raise a child? What does your child think about people who look different? Or ride in a wheel chair? What does your child think it would be like to not be able to see or hear?

– Allow your child free play time. Allow your child free time to explore outside – and not just at playgrounds. Try going on some hikes; try swimming somewhere other than a pool; try going to the beach and letting your child build and dig WITHOUT telling your child what to do or how to do it; try to let your child figure out what to do when he or she is bored at home. Allow for creativity which might involve a bit of a mess at home, for building and drawing and painting. And encourage your child’s interests rather than imposing your own.

– Play and build and dig and hike and swim and draw and build WITH your child but let your child lead the way. Provide back up support, not instruction.

– Do not over program your child. A few lessons are fine, but make sure there are some days of the week when your child is free to play with friends, read, play alone, practice old and new skills, think, or be bored or lonely.

– Try not to protect your child from hard tasks. Let your child struggle with homework before you jump in. And when you do offer to help, do not do the work for him or her. Help just enough to allow the child to continue to work.

– And do you have ideas to contribute to letting children become competent and mature? WRITE TO US!

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