I grew up in a time when most kids were told to be seen and not heard. You might remember what that was like, too; after all, it wasn’t that long ago. But looking back now as a mother myself, I have to say I find it all a bit scary — not to mention a pretty unproductive way to raise strong human beings.
I never thought about talking back to an adult, ever. Not even when my teacher asked me if I was “a retard” on my first day of 2nd-grade in a new school, because I was too nervous to read in front of a classroom full of strangers.
I didn’t say a peep.
I told my mom a few days later, nervous I had done something wrong. I felt I was challenging an adult and would be treated differently because I spoke up. And I was right. Had I only kept my mouth shut, maybe my 2nd-grade year wouldn’t have been so miserable.
When it comes to teaching our kids how to stand up for themselves, it can be a tricky line to walk. While it’s important to show them how to respect adults, it’s just as important to teach them how to respect themselves. And if you ask me, the only way to do this is by letting them voice their opinions, encouraging them to share their feelings, and talking to them about boundaries.
Having good manners and doing good things in this world doesn’t mean you hush up when something is happening that doesn’t feel right.
I teach my kids this by regular (and according to them, very annoying) reminders that if something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t and you should speak up about it, even if that yucky thing is being done by an adult.
And it makes me happy to see other mothers raising their kids like this, too. Times have changed since the ’80s and even the ’90s — we are raising different children, that’s for sure. We want our kids to know how to help themselves and others. Sometimes you do that by talking loud and hard about something you’re passionate about, and sometimes you do it by speaking up about an issue or situation that is wrong.
Trust me, I know a thing or two about what can happen if you don’t.
As a little girl, I was sexually abused by an older family member. He was someone I trusted; adored even. And because I looked up to him and loved him and was taught that you never talk back, you just do what you’re told or get punished, I didn’t speak up.
Instead, I let this horrible nightmare keep happening to me. It wasn’t even because I was afraid of punishment, either. I would have gladly taken that over what was happening.
By being told I was to be seen and not heard since as long as I could remember, I was led to believe I didn’t have a voice because I was a young girl. And even if I did say something, my voice probably didn’t matter anyway. That is what we do to young kids when we tell them over and over they shouldn’t disagree with adults, and should always do what they are told. We don’t leave room for them to act on their feelings or personal opinions — even when they’re being hurt.
I refuse to let my kids grow up thinking this way. I want them to know that their voice, their feelings, their opinions do matter. I want to teach them that not everyone will agree with them and not everyone will always see things their way, but that isn’t a reason to back down if they’re being hurt or someone they know is being hurt.
Of course, our kids need to know to be respectful of others in general, and not be belligerent simply because they don’t like a situation. There are times when life isn’t fair and talking back to anyone just to be disrespectful or hurtful isn’t OK. And I want my own kids to remember this when speaking to other kids too, not just adults.
There are times they don’t have a say — like when they need to do their homework before watching television, or when their room looks like a tornado ripped through it, or when they need to apologize for throwing rocks at the boy at the playground.
However, if they don’t want to spend time alone with someone, they can say no.
And if they don’t want to hug someone, they can say no — I don’t care if it’s a relative they have known their whole life.
If someone or a something is making them uncomfortable or telling them to do something they know is wrong, they can say no.
We need our children to learn this skill as early as possible. It gives them courage and confidence, it keeps them safer, and it teaches them their own self-worth. And perhaps most of all, it shows others they have boundaries and they are worthy of choosing the direction of their own life.
That’s the real key to raising strong, compassionate people — something our world can never have enough of.