Parent Allies

WHAT DOES THE WORLD LOOK LIKE WHEN CHILDREN ARE TREATED AS COMPLETE PEOPLE?

We just flew across the world, my husband and my two children. We’ve come to the UK from New Zealand to spend some time with my family. There’s a lot of thinking to be done on a 26 hour flight, when sleep alludes you ‘cos your bum cheeks ache from sitting down so long and you’ve watched all the watchable films. A few things caused my mind to start riffing on how the world would look if children were treated as complete people, as opposed to not-quite-a-person or even a loveable object.
Parent Allies

The first was the way in which people felt comfortable touching my youngest daughter. A plane is close quarters and by and large everyone is mindful of personal space. We squeeze up hard against the seats when passing in the aisle and any rubbed thighs or bumping elbows are met with mumbled apologies and awkward facials. Mostly people just respect each other’s bodies and the space we need.

Apart from when it comes to children. Walking up the aisle with my daughter leading the way, people would reach out from their seats and poke her tummy or stroke her arm. Two different stewardesses pressed their palms against her face and pinched her cheeks. I appreciate that people are trying to be kind and friendly, I appreciate that their actions aren’t malicious. But the truth is, to my daughter, they feel malicious. She is naturally introverted and wary of strangers. This kind of uninvited touch is scary for her and makes her shrink even further inside herself.

We would never reach out and touch an adult we’ve never met before on the face. We’d never poke their tummy or press their nose. We’d rarely even do this to a close friend or family member.

In a world where children were seen as fully human, they would be able to move freely amongst adults and not expect to be touched.  It wouldn’t be normal for children to be patted and prodded and stroked by adults. We would respect a child’s body boundaries in the same way we respect an adult’s.

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We visited a lot of toilets on our big trip. And for many of them I had to lift my children on to the toilet seat, lift them up so they could use the tap and lift them up to press the soap. In one toilet block there was a larger toilet and it had a big loo, a little loo and a fold out nappy table. It was amazing! My children were able to sort themselves out and we all had enough space so that it wasn’t the usual stressful experience of trying to keep bags and clothes of the floor, banging against the walls, with our hot, panicked bodies were squished up in a tiny space.

In a world where children were seen as fully human, there would be family toilets where there was enough space for a parent and children to be and where children could access the resources they need. There would be child sized toilets and child sized sinks. Some of the toilet blocks we went to in the airports had upwards of 30 cubicles – ample space to provide appropriate resources for around 20% of the population.

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These two little day to day examples got me thinking further about how different the world would be with a new perspective on childhood. Because it’s not just about the very practical ways that make it challenging for children to feel comfortable in the world, but I also beleive that we would have VERY different family policies.

Workplaces would be required to have robust and generous parental leave policies. This would meet the child’s need to have loving caregivers around in those very early days. It would also make it more likely for families to make choices that better reflected the needs and ambitions of both parents, rather than, as is often the case, the mother becoming locked in to the stay-at-home parenting role or the children going to full time early childhood education before they are ready, because of inadequate and gendered parental leave.

In the same vein, workplaces would be required to have fair and accessible flexible working policies. If fathers could better access flexi working than there would be more co-parenting and it would be far less likely that mothers would have their hands forced (often as a result of rigid, gendered workplace policies) to be the primary parent and carry all the emotional labour of the household, something which in lots of families causes strain on the parenting relationship and adds pressure to one parent, making it more challenging to meet their own needs and their children’s needs.

In a world where children were seen as fully human, family policy would support families making decisions around childcare that are best suited to meet the needs of each child and each parent. 

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I was at a park the other day with my daughters and witnessed two teachers walking a crocodile line of young children across the grass back to school after a swimming lesson. Some of the children weren’t doing it exactly as the teachers hoped; a couple of pairs had dropped hands, one kid was shuffling his feet, another dragging his bag. As we watched them cross a space of 200 metres we observed the teachers shout at the children multiple times. Not just in a must-be-heard kind of a way, but in a blue-in-the-face angry way. It was actual rage, the kind of angry communication I haven’t had directed at me for many years.

As adults, being shouted out tends to be a notable thing. It’s a story in itself “Jeez, my boss lost it today” or “Someone in the carpark was screaming at someone!”

We tend to recognise that angry communication isn’t healthy communication. But when it comes to children it seems it is acceptable. Simply a way to let them know they have made a mistake. Why is this so?

In a world where children were seen as fully human, people who consistently shout at children would be seen as having an anger management problem and would be given support to deal with it. Teachers that shout at children would be sent on a communication course, and the government would offer all parents who need it education and resources on how to communicate respectfully with children, how to parent in a way that they haven’t experienced themselves.

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Of course, shouting is the least of some children’s problems. Assaulting children by calling it “smacking” is within the law in many countries and even in NZ, where it has been outlawed for a decade, is still considered acceptable parenting by many. And, a step further, child abuse is still rife.

In the last couple of years in both the UK, New Zealand and Australia, there have been several situations where children have died violently at the hands of their caregivers, and yet they have been charged with manslaughter and not murder.

An adult death in the same circumstances would have certainly have been classed as murder.

In a world where children were seen as fully human, death by child abuse would be murder and not manslaughter. There would be no plea deals in cases that are clear cut murder simply because the victim was young.

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A recent Unicef study revealed that children are twice as likely as adults to live in extreme poverty and the percentage of children living in poverty both in developing nations and developing nations is on the rise. Seriously, what the hell? There are more billionaires in 2017 than ever before in human history and yet there are almost one billion children living in extreme poverty.

In a world where children were seen as fully human, children would not be overrepresented in global poverty statistics. Resources would be allocated to ensure that children had at least a basic meal and adequate shelter. And, just for good measure because I feel really f**king mad thinking about this, until every child in the world had all of their needs met, billionaires would be met with utter disgust rather than admiration.

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How do we get from family loos to child poverty? It is a big leap, but they are intimately related.

Over a decade ago I studied child rights at the London School of Economics under the incredible Professor Peter Townsend and I swore I would spend my life working to ensure the rights of children were upheld. Yet when I became a parent I couldn’t help but hone in on seemingly small stuff – not moving their bodies against their will, not forcing them to do things. I came to realise that we can, and must, honour the rights of children in our homes through this “small” stuff and that by honouring the full personhood of my children, I further the vision of full personhood of all children.

Here in my privileged position I am given the opportunity to build momentum around this idea that children are fully human and worthy of dignity and rights. I beleive that when this vision is fully realised things like child abuse and child poverty become utterly abhorrent. If we can change our perspective on childhood, we will begin to see, as we have in other human rights movements, huge progress in the treatment of this marginalised group of people.

There is a wonderful bit in Escape From Childhood by John Holt;

“Paul Goodman, in his many talks with young people, used to say that one good way to work for a truly different and better world was to act in their daily lives, as far they could, as if that world existed. What would you do, he would ask them, if the world had become more or less the kind of place you want it to be; how would you live, how would you treat other people? Live that way now, treat them that way now. If something prevents you, try to find a way to deal with that. We can begin to treat children, even the youngest and smallest, wherever we may find them, as we would want everyone to treat them in the society we are trying to make.”

It’s an invitation to all of us. Let’s do it. Let’s live as if the world we want already exists.

9 Comments

  • Becky July 5, 2017 at 7:51 pm

    Fantastic 💕💕

    Reply
  • Sian July 6, 2017 at 6:53 pm

    Yes!!!
    (Ps. Loved those loo’s on the journey home from NZ, not seen one before or since but everywhere should have them for sure!)

    Reply
  • Sophie July 8, 2017 at 12:21 pm

    Really well reasoned article. Love it!

    Reply
  • Natalie July 8, 2017 at 3:46 pm

    Love this! The bit on child-sized public loos… we travel a lot (family overseas from us) and I have boys and they stand up to pee and when they were little it meant they ended up with their penis resting on that really gross bit of the toilet where there’s a gap in the seat unless they managed to stand & balance on my feet to get an extra bit of height. Ewwww. So frustrating.

    Reply
  • Yossarian Fay July 10, 2017 at 8:02 am

    Love it! So many very true and sad statements in there that need attention … thanks for keeping on bringing into view.

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  • Talia B. July 10, 2017 at 6:03 pm

    I dream of this world too.

    Reply
  • Rose Arnold July 11, 2017 at 11:03 pm

    Yes this, totally. When I think about it it seems so bizarre. We were all children. How come so many people forget how it was to be a child? And why do we accept such diminished expectations as families when the majority of us will be parents? In work and in rights and also in the space we’re supposed to occupy. No children in certain places, after certain times, facilities that aren’t designed for families, the pressure of situations like public transport with young children. And what a joy it is in those times you really get to live the way it should be, at festivals and camping trips and so on.
    ♥♥ loving Parent Allies so far

    Reply
  • Mandie July 14, 2017 at 12:08 pm

    Brilliant article. I’m always thinking the same about public toilets especially given they are designed for the public (but not children apparently!) I went to a holiday park in my village and took my 3 yr old for a swim, given it’s a pool for kids, non of the toilets or sinks are low for kids???? Also my biggest hate is family that try to insist that it’s rude if my child doesn’t want to hug or kiss them goodbye! Why do people insist on trying to over power a child’s own mind and comfort zones.

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  • Azizi August 19, 2017 at 12:03 am

    Sad but true. A big part of my decision to homeschool my children was the desire to raise them without the rules and confines of a classroom which sole intention is to get them to follow “the rules” for the rest of their lives. The reason why people don’t think about what was expressed in your article is because most of us grew up being treated like this and it becomes a rite of passage so to speak and many are waiting their turn to be the “boss” of others to gain control over their lives through no other known means. I send compassion to the world as I embrace my role as an active example of self reform and constant renewal.

    Reply

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