When You Treat a Person Like a Child

"Don't treat me like a child." "You're treating her like a child." I imagine we've all heard it said. Whether it comes in tones of outraged fury or wise advice-giving, the message is always the same: People don't like being treated that way. I'd heard it countless times and never given it a second thought. It was startling, therefore, when someone called to my attention the implications for us as parents. "What," she asked, "does this say about the way we treat children?"

I started thinking about what is really being said in that phrase: Don't treat me as if I can't do anything. Don't treat me as if I don't know anything. Don't patronize me. Don't dismiss my opinions as irrelevant. Don't ignore my thinking. Don't put me in a second-class category. Don't treat me with disrespect. People don't like to be treated that way--and I'm sure that children are no exception.

Yet we do it all the time, and with our children most of all. I was struck recently, meeting a young graduate student, by something in his interaction with the children. It sounded different from the adult/child norm, but I couldn't put my finger on it right away. Finally I figured it out. His conversations with the children sounded just like his conversations with me. The tone of voice that he used, the kinds of questions he asked, the attention he gave to the answers, the information he offered about himself--were all just the same. Here was an adult talking to children as if they were ordinary human beings--and I hardly ever hear that. No wonder it sounded so strange. (Needless to say, he has become a great favorite with them since.)

Of course nothing is ever easy for us as parents. Part of our job is to help our children in areas where they lack skill or information or the judgment that comes from experience. We can't avoid those situations, and it would be silly to pretend that they know or can do things that they can't. But I'm sure that there are many situations in which even a small change in our tone could make a big difference. What if we kept in mind the way we would offer help to a respected peer who, for some reason, lacked a piece of information or a skill that we happened to have? We'd probably try hard to do it in such a way that minimized any feeling of "being treated like a child."

The other day I had to face a very flat tire, with unfamiliar equipment and minimal experience--a humiliating prospect for a woman who takes pride in being good at things like that. It was a wonderful gift to have a man offer to help--not by taking over and doing it for me, but by giving me the information that I lacked, and standing by, with great confidence that I could do it myself. And I did. The experience left me feeling not humiliated and stupid ("like a child"), but successful and warmly connected to another human being. This is the gift that I would like to give to my children, over and over again.