Why Are Americans So Inclined to Disrespect Children?

Even those who work with kids are unlikely to always afford them the dignity they deserve.

Photo Credit: fasphotographic via

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.

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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.

As the young man was walking up the hill, a timid player on the team said, “Coach, that was me.”

I had just kicked a young man off the team who had not, in fact, said a thing.


A day or so ago, I received an email from Alfie Kohn about his new book, The Myth of the Spoiled Child. I noticed it was similar to a book I am co-editing, Pedagogies of Kindness and Respect: On the Lives and Education of Children. I also noted that our perspectives on children—on how parents, teachers, and society treat children—appears to be a minority view.

I have been mulling, or more likely stewing, about this for some time: What makes adults—even the ones who choose to spend their lives with children—so damned negative and hateful about those children?

That is the source of my palpable anger at the “grit,”“no excuses,” and “zero tolerance” narratives and policies.

I grew up and live in the South, where the default attitude toward children remains that they are to be seen and not heard, that a child’s role is to do as she/he is told. If a child crosses those lines, then we must teach her/him a lesson, show her/him who is boss—rightfully, we are told, by hitting that child: spare the rod spoil the child. I find that same deficit view of children is not some backwoods remnant of the ignorant South; it is the dominant perspective on children throughout the U.S.

As Barbara Kingsolver explains in “Everybody’s Somebody’s Baby”:

For several months I’ve been living in Spain, and while I have struggled with the customs office, jet lag, dinner at midnight and the subjunctive tense, my only genuine culture shock has reverberated from this earthquake of a fact: People here like kids. They don’t just say so, they do. Widows in black, buttoned-down c.e.o.’s, purple-sneakered teen-agers, the butcher, the baker, all have stopped on various sidewalks to have little chats with my daughter. Yesterday, a taxi driver leaned out his window to shout “ Hola, guapa !” My daughter, who must have felt my conditioned flinch, looked up at me wide-eyed and explained patiently, “I like it that people think I’m pretty.”

With a mother’s keen myopia, I would tell you, absolutely, my daughter is beautiful enough to stop traffic. But in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, I have to confess, so is every other person under the height of one meter. Not just those who agree to be seen and not heard. When my daughter gets cranky in a restaurant (and really, what do you expect at midnight?), the waiters flirt and bring her little presents and nearby diners look on with that sweet, wistful gleam of eye that before now I have only seen aimed at the dessert tray. Children are the meringues and eclairs of this culture. Americans, it seems to me now, sometimes regard children as a sort of toxic-waste product: a necessary evil, maybe, but if it’s not their own they don’t want to see it or hear it or, God help us, smell it.

I just don’t get it.

A child is not a small adult, not a blank slate to be filled with our “adult weariness,” or a broken human that must be repaired. It is also true that children are not angels; they are not pure creatures suited to be set free to find the world on their own. Seeing children through deficit or ideal lenses does not serve them—or anyone—well.

Within the U.S. culture there is a schizophrenia around kids—we worship young adulthood in popular media, but seem to hate children—that is multiplied exponentially by a lingering racism and classism that compounds the deficit view of childhood. Nowhere is this more evident than in the research showing how people view children of color:

Asked to identify the age of a young boy that committed a felony, participants in a study routinely overestimated the age of black children far more than they did white kids. Worse: Cops did it, too...

The correlation between dehumanization and use of force becomes more significant when you consider that black boys are routinely estimated to be older than they are...

The less the black kids were seen as human, the less they were granted “the assumption that children are essentially innocent.” And those officers who were more likely to dehumanize black suspects overlapped with those who used more force against them.

In the enduring finger-pointing dominant in the U.S.—blaming the poor for their poverty, blaming racial minorities for the burdens of racism, blaming women for the weight of sexism—we maintain a gaze that blinds us to ourselves, and allows us to ignore that in that gaze are reflections of the worst among us.

Why do the police sweep poor African American neighborhoods and not college campuses in search of illegal drugs? Why do we place police in the hallways of urban high schools serving mostly poor African American and Latino students, demanding “zero tolerance”? Why are “grit” narratives and “no excuses” policies almost exclusively targeting high-poverty, majority-minority schools (often charter schools with less public oversight)?

When I raise these questions, I can rest assured I will inspire the same sort of nasty response I often encounter when cycling. A few motorists make their anger known when we are riding our bicycles, and I am convinced that while some are genuinely frustrated with our temporarily blocking the road, the real reason they are angry is that we are enjoying ourselves as children do.

And nothing angers a bitter adult as much as the pleasures of a child.

Children are not empty vessels to be filled, blank hard drives upon which we save the data we decide they should have. Nor are children flawed or wild; they do not need us to repair or break them.

Neither are they to be coddled or worshipped. They are children, and they are all our children.

Yes, there are lessons to be taught, lessons to be learned. But those driven by deficit or idealized views are corrupted and corrupting lessons. Each and every child—as all adults—deserves to have her/his basic dignity respected, first, and as adults charged with the care of any child, our initial question before we do anything with or to a child must be about ourselves.

In 31 years of teaching, I can still see and name the handful of students I mis-served in my career, like Billy above. Those faces and names today serve as my starting point: with any child, first do no harm.

An earlier version of this article was first published on The Becoming Radical blog.

Paul L. Thomas is an associate professor of education at Furman University.