Why Are Americans So Inclined to Disrespect Children?
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Although being an adult necessarily means we have all been children, as e. e. cummings suggests, growing up is often forgetting. My own experiences as a teacher and a parent have helped me remember what it means to be a child—but they have also caused me a great deal of anxiety about how we view and treat both children and childhood in the U.S.
In one of my early years of teaching, I found myself in the exact room at the rural upstate South Carolina high school where I had once been a student. It was the first day of school and I was calling that first roll—a sort of silly but important ritual of schooling for both teachers and students. Just about everyone knows everyone in my hometown, and we are very familiar with the common names of the town. When I came to one young man’s name I recognized, I took the opportunity to make a joke. Rather than pronouncing his name, Billy Laughter (it rhymes with slaughter), correctly, I chose instead to call out "Billy Laff-ter" (rhyming the name with after).
Smiling at my own humor, I scanned the room and then turned my eyes back to Billy; he was red-faced and on the edge of having a very bad first day, one that was likely going to result in his being punished for my having done a very stupid thing. I quickly raised my hand, palm facing him, and apologized. “Billy, my mistake,” I said. “I’m sorry. I was trying to be funny but it wasn’t.” And then I said his name correctly.
Billy had suffered a lifetime of people mangling his name, and he wasn’t in any mood for my being clever on the first day of school.
Several years later, I was teaching a U.S. history class as part of my usual load as a member of the English department. While I was having students form small groups, two young white males bumped into each other, back to back, while moving their desks. I caught the moment out of the corner of my eye and rushed over to defuse the fight that was clearly about to occur.
I wasn’t surprised—this was typical of my small community, along with fights starting because “he/she looked at me wrong.” But some time after this, I read a research study that explained how people in the South and North handle personal space differently. In the South, bumping into someone or looking at someone wrong is often interpreted as challenging someone’s honor, requiring a response. People in the North, conditioned by mass transit and crowded cities are not as apt to find acts of close proximity anything other than that.
Like Billy Laughter above, these young men were on the precipice of being treated as we would treat adults—as if fighting is simple to punish, an obvious and clear wrong. In school, our rules are often shaped in ways that suggest we view children as little adults—and that often means that with children there are no excuses, no explanations.
I want to add just one more event from those middle years of my teaching. While running a drill at soccer practice one day, I heard a comment from a player in a group behind me. I thought I recognized the offender's voice: he was difficult in class and on the team, and worst of all, he was very disruptive at practice. I turned and, without hesitating, announced, “You are out of here."
Throwing him out of practice? No, I kicked him off the team.