by Nathan Chua
This is one of those statements that most of you have probably heard from different symposia or self-help seminars. I will be writing here from my years of dealing with issues between kids and their parents. It is one of those statements that need qualification. In my experience, the ones that do it correctly are those who consciously do it, while those parents or guardians who don’t, would normally have no inkling that they are treating their children as adults, albeit in harmful ways. To put it succinctly, you could be treating your kids as adults correctly, or incorrectly.
Let me start with the negative so we can end this article on a more optimistic tone. As I had mentioned earlier, parents who belong to this category, are usually the ones who are unaware of the long term ill effects of their actions. These are families that dared their kids to grow up quickly, expecting them to show acts that are way beyond their abilities to cope emotionally. This is where the proverbial adult children come from. Here are instances when this happens:
Expecting them to work, or do house chores that have physical demands that are beyond their capacity
Expecting them to take sides or become arbiters on a difficult relationship between parents or siblings
Expecting them to know better than what their age can comprehend
Expecting them to take care of the needs of their younger siblings even as there are parents or other adult guardians around
All these are normally going on without the adults, let alone the innocent children, detecting them. I see the effects of these early demands on children, show up in people who have very high levels of anxiety towards the unfairness of life. As adults, these kids turn out to have inordinate demands for retribution from the relationships they currently have to negotiate. These demands are drawn more from early deficits or injustices experienced during childhood, rather than the current realities they face.
When is it okay to treat a child like an adult?
Knowing how to stop and listen to a child when he or she wants to express something
Knowing when to tell a child to wait for a response
Knowing how to tell a child in an age appropriate manner, about difficult topics like human sexuality or death
Knowing what age appropriate skills a child needs to learn
Responding with wonderment and interest to a child’s observations about the world around
Offering the same respect to a child as one would offer another adult
These acts eventually translate into children who grow up confident of themselves, and who have a realistic appreciation of their abilities. Shame becomes less of an issue, and kids are free to take initiative and experiment; unafraid of being themselves even when they choose to be different from the majority.
They also learn to treat others with respect and empathy, the way they learned it from the adults in their lives. Kids can be skilled copycats.
Finally and most importantly, these kids see in the adults of their lives, how they can do the same for the next generation. This is probably the greatest of all gratification for those of us who are slowly drifting towards the twilight of our lives.