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What is Adult Privilege? Boundaries, Manipulation, Coercion and Respect for Children

by Beverley Paine, Oct 2014

Paquita brought an article called 'Unintentional Child Abuse and Adult Privilege' to my attention on my The Educating Parent Facebook page and invited me to share my thoughts... Here they are!

Adult privilege as described in the article is something that I am frequently thinking about lately. Perhaps because it was hard for me to let go of childhood, reluctant in my early teens to embrace adult responsibility, that I retain a sense of connection to my childhood self. Regardless of the reason why, I'm happy I can relate to the childhood perspective fairly easily. Definitely makes writing children's stories easier!

I disagree with the author's statement that children "make poor decisions frequently" - this comment is clearly made from an adult privilege stance. I'm sure the children don't think their decisions are poor or inadequate or even inappropriate: they work diligently to think things through and problem solve just as much and as hard as adults. They use what they know and what they have experienced and learned to help them but because all of this is limited it sometimes doesn't work out for everyone involved, even if it does for them. And sometimes the outcomes are exactly what children aim for, it's just that the adults don't value that result or the effort involved! When children's needs, aims and outcomes line up with adults needs, aims and outcomes we cheer and praise - it's when they don't we call the decisions "poor" ones.

Children are an inconvenience to adults as well as a blessing. That's okay. Once upon a time they weren't shut out of the world of adult activity and they learned to move around us, observing and learning and doing their best not to get underfoot or in the way. This is how they learned the essential skills needed to become independent as well as participating members of the community.

Yes, we must recognise and honour the fact that children are children and allow them space to develop and grow in a way that suits their individual natures and needs. Sadly too many adults see children simply as apprentice adults, in too much of a rush to 'grow them up' for various reasons. Sometimes it's because it's more convenient. Sometimes because we don't want to spend time meeting their needs, too preoccupied with our own, and sometimes it's because we really don't like children and prefer the company of adults (probably because throughout our schooling we hung out with same-age peers and were encouraged not to play with younger siblings or friends...)

Regarding a lack of respect, this is something that occurs across all age groups - people aren't at all well socialised and I blame the experience of school. Most adults confuse politeness with respect. The children I tend to meet and get to know are awesomely respectful, especially if I act that way around them. They seem keen to interact positively with me, responding in the same way as many adults do to a friendly smile and respectful tone...

Children who act out or are disrespectful have lost trust in adults and perhaps themselves. This can happen really early in life.

It's true that adults don't regard children as people and often say things that are incredibly disrespectful without thinking through how a child will process that information or commentary. I'm guilty of that and still finding myself doing it even though I know it's disrespectful: every so often I become mindful and resolve, yet again, to work harder on changing this habit.

Regarding sharing things - if it's mine, as in I own it, it's up to me if I want to share it. Just because a child is a child doesn't change that. But that's because it's mine, not because I am an adult. There are some 'adult' things I would not want to share with a child because I judge them to be developmentally inappropriate. That's my call too: other adults will have different values and standards. As a parent I work to protect my children according to my values and standards.

Regarding making children eat food they hate... first thought - why do they feel so intensely about this food? If a child is allowed to try food and give it a go every so often (taste buds and preferences change over time) without fuss and has access to a range of foods such intense emotion need not arise... I stop hanging out with people that insist I do things I don't want to do or can't do... I'd expect my children to do the same. And if it is me that's forcing them? I'd hope they'd let me know I'm being disrespectful and endangering the relationship...

Expecting children to do anything that is above or below their developmental stage or ability is a recipe for disappointment, conflict or potential disaster! If we want a relationship with anyone we need to get to know them, work out what they can do and know, how they learn, what their special skills are, where they are at in their development and respect that and work within that framework. That's how we operate as people and it works to build cooperative and constructive relationships that are mutually beneficial.

Naturally as parents we're learners too, we've not parented before and our personal experiences of being parented probably weren't ones that were respectful of children as people. There is a lot of entrenched conditioning that needs to be examined, questioned and undone. We need to forgive ourselves of our mistakes and slip ups and less than perfect parenting...

We don't have to put up with (tolerate) children's 'shenaningans' just because we brought them into the world... If we treat them like people - respect them as people - we won't consider their actions and responses as 'shenanigans' but as an expression of need. If we want to build a relationship with this person we'll create the time and space to work to understand the need driving the expression... That's not easy and most of the time we really couldn't be bothered, even with our own children. We're too busy living our own lives. And we don't want to interrupt our own lives too much to meet the needs of others or help them learn how to meet them.

Ridding our lives of the urge to manipulate others for our own convenience or gain takes a fair degree of mindfulness and awareness - cultivating this is an essential aspect of our own continuing development.

I'm not sure that being an adult affords one privilege in the way the author seems to be indicating. We're all people. Some of us are simply young, some older. We're all learners.

Respect can be lost and it can be earned. Most of us are fairly neutral to begin with and respond to the environment: if we are treated with respect we respond with respect. If we're injured, however, our senses or judgment might be warped: we might be disrespectful in the moment because we're stuck in the past, reacting to that instead of the current situation. That's when trust becomes very helpful. Trusting that a person is capable of learning and growing... having empathy and being sympathetic instead of judgmental.

It's not just children that "need guidance when it comes to living harmoniously with siblings, parents, and the wider community" - everyone does. We need to work together to continuously raise awareness of the need and the ways in which this can be achieved that meets both individual needs and the needs of the community.

Boundaries is an interesting term that is, I think, given the topic of the article, another express of adult privilege. I'd hate another adult to feel the need to impose boundaries on me, though I live in a society of rules and regulations. I accept those rules and regulations and abide by them because they make sense to me: children do the same. Instead of imposing boundaries on children for whatever reason makes sense to us, let's help children work out what makes sense to them, and with luck they'll agree with our views and values. If not, there's a good chance our views and values will be challenged and perhaps change, maybe even resulting in amended rules and regulations...

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Together with the support of my family, my aim is to help parents educate their children in stress-free, nurturing environments. In addition to building and maintaing this website, I continue to create and manage local and national home educating networks, help to organise conferences and camps, as well as write for, edit and produce newsletters, resource directories and magazines. I am an active supporter of national, state, regional and local home education groups.

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