“Children should be seen, but not heard, “ my father used to remind me if I interrupted an adult conversation at the dinner table, echoing the ethos of child-raising of his generation.
It was back in the days when “parenting” was not a verb as large as it was to become. To parent simply meant to provide food, shelter, clothing and baths to the little ones running underfeet. Extra points for lullabies and bedtime stories, games of catch and occasional trips to the circus. But mostly, scooting them out the door to play with the neighborhood kids and making sure they’re home for dinner was considered enough.
As a kid, that was fine with me. Grown-ups were somewhat strange alien creatures who couldn’t wholly understand my pride in spitting further than my friend or rigging up a system of ropes in the house to open doors from afar. I understood that I had certain duties as a kid that were sometimes excruciatingly boring—going to church, accompanying my mother to the bank with long lines, visiting family friends who didn’t have kids. I believe it helped me develop my ability to find interest in boring things, let my mind wander freely or notice the dust in shafts of light or dream about this or that.
The adult-child relationship changed dramatically when I grew up and my generation—at least some of us—was responsible for that. I taught at a child-centered school where we didn’t even have a teacher’s room—and still don’t. It was based on Maria Montessori’s radical idea that children have psychological/emotional/intellectual needs every bit as necessary at food, clothing, shelter and that we adults would do well to understand them and build our child-raising practices around them. And we did and we do and it has mostly worked out well, giving kids the independence, support, work habits, play opportunities appropriate to each developmental level.
But somewhere along the line, the mainstream American culture flipped the switch and now the “good parent” was the child’s buddy and best friend and the family revolved around the child’s every whim and want. To straighten the bent stick of the ‘50’s mentality, we overshot the mark and now it’s bent in the other direction.
All this was on my mind after a glorious day with granddaughter Zadie. We set up the electric train set, let her work the controls and decide how many cars and what speed and where the animals would ride. We did three puzzles, coaching her when she needed help. We let her play the piano alone and watched as she sang and pecked around and turned the pages of the music book to “read” the next song. We set up the markers and paper and helped her hang her creations around the house. We watched Dumbo together and applauded her dancing along with the pink elephants on parade. (Was Disney into hallucinetic drugs back then? Check out that scene!).
After dinner, it was time for our Christmas Eve rituals. We all gathered around the piano for one more carol sing before the songs lost their luster and I naturally chose the ones she could sing with us—Jingle Bells, Rudolph, Frosty, We Wish You a Merry Christmas. Then she requested the 12 Days of Christmas and tried to keep up with it, helped by adults modeling the gestures. But then came a few songs beyond her for the moment—Silent Night, Midnight Clear, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day—and then I remembered how important it is for kids to quietly observe the adults even when they can’t wholly participate. After singing, we walked through the candle-lit house and Talia did her ritual read of Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory. I warned Zadie that this was a grown-up story hard to understand and expected that she would protest somewhere along the way. But she sat in her mother’s lap listening quietly and helped me remember to also give kids some time beyond where they are. Yes, they should be seen and heard and played with and left alone to play and given useful work and taught to help and contribute and… also brought into an adult world just beyond their reach.
That’s what I’m thinking about on Christmas morning. May it be merry for us all!