Let’s take back the role of being an Adult!
Published March 2011 in the Manifesto Zine When I was a kid, “long, long ago when the earth was green, things were (mostly) beautiful and life seemed to be much simpler”, everyone pretty much knew where they stood, what they were and what was expected of them. If you were a kid, you respected adults of any description; be it your parents, your teachers or any other adult for that matter, simply because they were older than you. You didn’t have to like them, you just had to be respectful and you never dreamed of being rude to them! This was sometimes difficult for us as children and you often heard adults say things like “Speak when you are spoken to” or, my favourite, “Children should be seen and not heard”. All adults had an aura of authority about them; they were just as comfortable at reprimanding their own children as someone else’s and whether you wanted it or not, you could be sure that you got lots of advice from them! I am not saying that this was a perfect world, far from it, and I remember plenty of challenges with authority myself, but, I think the fact that roles were more clearly defined was a plus. When you saw an adult, you immediately knew how you should act. Of course there were examples where adults didn’t act appropriately or where they were not capable of behaving well themselves. If we found one unsure of how to deal with unruly kids, like a school teacher, we would really act up and push the boundaries to embarrass them. There were those adults that weren’t at all nice. Some preyed on small children or got a kick out of being incredibly cruel and sadly we still see examples of this today. What has changed is a child’s ability to do something about it. Most people can accept that bad things sometimes happen to children and that their rights should be protected. It is no longer OK to have abused children be “seen and not heard” and there are many mechanisms that attempt to catch children falling victim to child abuse and neglect. I am also not saying that we should respect people just because they are adults, and I believe in the idea of earning respect, but I wonder if this shift has gone too far and now both children and adults have lost their way, leading some to isolation, anger and depression. Many of us are so alone with families separated for geographic and emotional reasons and it can be hard to connect with others. We no longer value the art of conversation and I believe this further isolates us from one another. Before e-media and technology, good conversation was valued. It could entertain or enlighten, but sadly much of the skill of conversation have been lost in short 6 second sound bites. Meanwhile, the increase in bullying at schools and the workplace continues unabated. Binge drinking and street fights in the early hours of the morning has become a favoured leisure time activity in and of itself. The pathway to such behaviour commences early, and by teen years can be linked to “coolness”, “toughness” or just “having a good time”.
How many adults question the morality and ethics of such behaviour or, at a basic level, its ability to provide any sort of sustainable sense of worth? Our ideas of what are good role models versus not good ones have become blurred over time and maybe it has become harder for people to know what to aim for. Many of our leaders and celebrities act like poorly disciplined and ill-mannered children; demonstrating little respect for themselves and others. How can we expect our children to be responsible when they see this behaviour celebrated in the media? When I was young, as children and teenagers we dressed differently to adults. Clothes were styled specifically to suit girls and boys up to the age of about 15 and it was easy to see the differentiation between young-adult and adult even from a distance. The differentiation from adults was comforting and easy to recognise. To be fair, the down side was that there was little room to express one’s individuality. If you didn’t like the style it was too bad. This has gone in current children’s fashion with many parents struggling to find something suitable for their teenage children. Is this lack of “place” (i.e. the definition of what you are as a child), playing havoc with young people? Perhaps with the rise of children’s rights has come a decline in adult responsibility, “adult ability”, an understanding of what it is to be an “adult”. In my observations, many adults seem to be frightened of their children, particularly teenagers. Many an adult seems to bend too far towards compromise leaving children confused about what is appropriate and inappropriate behaviour. As adults we need to lead and this means making decisions.
Here are some examples of what I mean: Rowdy school boys on trains often get onto the train busily talking. They often stand in the area near the doors of the train and tend to drop their bags on the floor leaving very little space for others to get on and off the train. I am often amused to see adults, often professional people in suits picking their way through the bags to get off the train, whilst the boys are oblivious to them. Why does this happen? I think it is because adults have forgotten what their role is in society. In terms of their role with children, isn’t it to look after, to guide and care for them? That means ALL children and by doing this we help to build a sustainable future for us all. Many adults (and children) are disconnected, they have become isolated and have forgotten how to communicate with others so the mere thought of interacting with someone else doesn’t feel good. There are going to be right and wrong ways to approach this type of issue, with the wrong way potentially ending badly, but the right way will help those boys feel good about themselves. Someone has to take the time to speak to them, and help them to connect to reality – the reality of caring for others in their immediate environment. So when this happens to you next time simply say “Hey you boys, can you move those bags so we can get through?” You will find, as I do, that they immediately jump to attention, and quickly move their bags. You, as an adult, are left with a good feeling about the boys on the train. No longer frustrated and annoyed that you have had to step across the bags of “those boys”.
Most kids actually want guidance and respond positively when they are reminded to think about the people around them. Another example that I observed recently was in the supermarket. I was shopping by myself when a lady in her late thirties came past and stopped. She had two children in her trolley. One was about 4 and the other was about 3. She was asking the smaller one what they would have for dinner. She wasn’t just talking to herself out aloud, she was really asking this little child their opinion on what they would have for dinner. The child wasn’t having any of it – and why would they? They are the child; it’s up to the parent to work this sort of stuff out. The lady was getting more and more apologetic and implored the child to “help” her make a decision. Then the lady realised I was watching and rolled her eyes in that way that says “you know what it is like with kids don’t you?” She wanted me to agree with her that “yes, getting kids to help you with what they want for dinner is very difficult, if not frustrating”. But I couldn’t agree with this approach so when I found her by this time arguing with the small child in the next isle I thought that, since she had effectively included me in the conversation a few moments before, I would offer some advice. So I said (nicely I thought) “If it were me, I would tell them what they were having – not ask them, they are children and not up to making those types of decisions”. Well, I should have known better, because she told me to “mind my own business”. Ok, so perhaps I should have shut up, but too often, people do shut up and mind their own business and others are left out there trying to work things out themselves without the benefits of the learnings that were once passed from generation to generation. When my children were little, many people would give me advice or their opinion on what they thought I was doing (wrong mostly), so I know it can be aggravating. But at least there were people out there that cared enough to say something in the first place. Some were just busy bodies, but these were adults that would speak without fear to try and help. They could do this because the roles of adult and child were clearly defined with everyone more aware that we’re ALL responsible for ALL children.
Now, I think that the roles and responsibilities of adults and children are blurred and that as adults we should take back the adult role and let children be children. Don’t subject them to our own insecurities and our own constant “need for approval” or “to be liked”. I think that real adults act in ways that help children feel that becoming an adult is something that is good, it is of value, encouraging them to grow up with hope for a positive future. Already there are so many burdens on younger people to be something, to fit in, to achieve at school, to look good, etc. Let’s give them something back and get something in return. Don’t put undue pressure on your children because you don’t know what to do or what to have for dinner like the lady in the supermarket.
Your role as a parent is as guide, mentor, carer and leader. I don’t think that we should be respected just because we are adults – but I don’t think that we should all be treated the same way as children either. Our roles are different and we have a right to be respected within the context of those roles as the people we are. I often hear the term “dis-respecting me” in reference to something said or done to someone. Even the phrase “being disrespectful” has changed now to become “[you’re] dis-respecting me”. I hear it so often that it’s made me think about the meaning of respect and if the common use of this word by younger generations still has the same meaning today. Here is a good definition of respect and disrespect from Emotional Competency http://www.emotionalcompetency.com/respect.htm;
“Respect is action. We demonstrate our respect for others by giving them authentic positive attention, listening with positive attention, acknowledging them as fellow human beings, and providing appropriate recognition. Avoiding, withholding, or manipulating these responses are signs of disrespect. Any form of insult or humiliation is disrespectful”,
And here is a definition of disrespect from Wiktionary http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/disrespect
“disrespect (usually uncountable; plural disrespects) 1. A lack of respect, esteem or courteous behaviour.” We seem to have lost the meaning of the last definition – “[a lack of] esteem or courteous behaviour” you could argue that you should earn the right to be treated in a courteous manner. When I was young this translated to being “well mannered”. Speaking and behaving in a courteous manner, showing respect for someone, having esteem for that person’s achievements whether that be as a parent, leader, workmate or friend. I think that the term “dis-respecting me” has come to mean something different. I think that it can be confused with a person having an opinion voiced to them that is contrary to theirs, or them being challenged by someone about their (obviously) bad behaviour. Even offering them assistance can infer that they are not handling a situation well. The perceived suggestion is that you don’t accept the person, or you don’t think that they are capable, or that you don’t think that they are good. To me, this is not the same as being dis-respectful – it is more about the way that that person sees themselves rather than the way that you are speaking to them.
As I was growing up I always wanted to be like my Grandfather who I thought was a great man. He was funny, he was kind, and he was big and made me feel safe when I was with him. He worked hard, was respected by his peers, he was definite and strict about rules around the house and so definite about his values for a good life. When he died, hundreds of people came to his funeral. This memory has given me something to strive for my whole life – to love, to be known and to be respected for it. I think that I have taken the many concepts about adulthood that I saw demonstrated by my Grandfather and used them to truly be an adult; with both my own children and others around me. To stand for what I believe in and to respect others even when I don’t agree with them. That’s what I aim for anyway.