In his book Escape From Childhood, educator John Holt relates a “most embarrassing moment” shared with him by a friend. The friend was walking in a department store behind two little boys when “feeling affectionate and mischievous, she put a fingertip on each boy’s head. In an instant, two furious adult faces looked up at her, and in a harsh, high, but adult voice, one of them said, ‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?’”
It wasn’t until many years later that it occurred to Holt that his friend’s embarrassing story belied a common and unfortunate perception – that it would have been okay to touch these men of short stature had they been children, even though she didn’t know them from Adam.
Is it our well-meaning perception of children as cute and adorable that causes us to treat them less respectfully than we would another adult? Is every child’s round head ours to touch? Are babies ours to pick up and hold; their cheeks ours to pinch?
I’m reminded of Magda Gerber’s wise words, “Many awful things have been done in the name of love, but nothing awful can be done in the name of respect.”
Our love and affection for children is a positive thing, but if we don’t make the conscious effort to respect first, these positive feelings can lead us to treat children in demeaning, diminishing ways.
Not Just Cute, the expressive title of Amanda Morgan’s engaging parenting website says it all. Puppies, kittens and dolls might be cute, but our children need to know from the beginning that they are far more than that in our eyes. Even our babies need us to consider them ‘serious’ people. As Holt writes, “[Children] are not at all sentimental about their littleness. They would rather be big than little, and they want to get big as soon as they can.”
‘Cute’ isn’t a word to be abolished from our vocabulary. It has its purposes. For one, I feel much more comfortable calling someone of the opposite sex “cute” than “hot” (as my teenagers might). But “cute” spills out of me much more than I’d like, especially with young children. Our little ones can be so delightful and charming that it’s challenging to compose ourselves. This is yet another parenting challenge, but a worthy one: taking care not to minimize, weaken and lessen those who most need our empowerment.
Here are some instances when our children should definitely not be perceived as cute…
1. When they’re upset
Has anyone ever told you, “You’re cute when you’re angry”? Perhaps this only happened in 1940’s movies, but don’t tell me it wouldn’t enrage you if it did! And yet, situations like the one John Holt describes in this passage happen all the time…
“One afternoon I was with several hundred people in an auditorium of a junior college when we heard outside the building the passionate wail of a small child. Almost everyone smiled, chuckled, or laughed. Perhaps there was something legitimately comic in the fact that one child should, and without even trying, be able to interrupt the supposedly important thoughts and words of all these adults. But beyond this was something else: the belief that the feelings, pains and passions of children were not real, not to be taken seriously. If we had heard outside the building the voice of an adult crying in pain, anger, or sorrow, we would not have smiled or laughed but would have been frozen in wonder and terror.”
2. When they express kindness, generosity, love and affection
As hard as it is for some of us not to exclaim an adoring “Awww!” when a baby holds hands with another, a toddler hugs his friend or hands another child a toy, it’s important that we try to restrain ourselves. Yes, these exquisite moments are the good stuff of parenting, rewards that we should enjoy and celebrate. But it’s safer to do so quietly, especially if the child isn’t looking our way. Our exuberant expressions of appreciation distract and turn the child’s authentic act into a little performance. These acts become a way to garner our positive attention, which can then become the sole motivation for them.
Our perception of children as cute ends up interfering with their intrinsic motivation. Children might be encouraged to take on the “cute” identity and become unconsciously motivated to exploit it…
“A cute child soon learns to do almost everything she or he does, at least around adults, to get an effect. Such children become self-conscious, artful, calculating, manipulative. They pay more and more attention to how they appear in the eyes of others. I often see such simpering, mincing, cutesy-smiling, fake-laughing children with adults in public places. They become specialists in human relations, which they see more and more as a kind of contest to see who can get the most out of others.” –Holt
3. When they are focused, determined, brave or trying to do new things
“I used to think the clumsiness of infants learning to walk was cute. Now I watch in a different spirit. Although there is nothing cute about clumsiness – any more than littleness – there is something very appealing and exciting about watching children just learning to walk. They do it so badly, it is so clearly difficult, and in the child’s terms may even be dangerous. Most adults, even many older children, would instantly stop trying to do anything that they did as badly as new walkers do their walking. But infants just keep on. They are so determined, they’re working so hard and they’re so excited that learning to walk is not just an effort and struggle but a joyous adventure.” –Holt
These qualities in children aren’t cute — they’re inspiring. And the upside (for me, at least) is that children who are used to being respected won’t buy anything less. They see through the “cute” treatment and feel only distrust for the person offering it — knowing beyond all doubt that they are much, much more.
(If you’d like to read more of John Holt’s essay “The Cuteness Syndrome”, a slightly different version of the latter part has been reprinted here: The Natural Child Project)
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