Feelings of Children
by Virginia Coigney
|Very few adults respect the
feelings of children. Generally, expressions of emotion on the
part of the young are identified and dismissed as
"childish" and thus of no importance. People who
empathize with the feelings of minorities and women persist in
insulting the feelings of children. Even the most radical among us
is apt to come full halt at the idea of the validity of a child's
feelings. Adults laugh at youthful attempts at love and
friendship, and repress young efforts at touching and meeting. A
child's tears are a common cause for amusement or anger.
We say things to and about children that would be unthinkable
were our victims "mature." We criticize the way the
child looks and behaves. We call attention to faults and failures
in a brutal stream of comment and we very often do so within the
hearing of other adults or other children. We feel free to
question a child's honesty, his dreams, his thoughts, and his
friendships. In the latter instance we do not hesitate to analyze
his associates to their, and by implication his, disadvantage. We
express our opinions about him, and all that is his, without pity.
Furthermore, we ask him to believe that we say these things for
his own good. Since children live in a state more of guilt than of
grace, we may assume that they believe a good deal of what we tell
Yet it isn't difficult to run up a list of things that lead
both adults and children to rage and sometimes tears. Jealousy,
lovelessness, fear, feelings of inadequacy, unjust criticism,
plans gone awry, threats, violence, loss of a valued object. What
makes such circumstances matters of great seriousness when they
occur among adults and unimportant when experienced by children is
difficult to see, and yet the answer is painfully obvious. The
distinguishing factor is power. Children's feelings are less
important because they have little power. Like prisoners or
suppressed minorities or dependent women, they get their power by
association and often by the difficulties they can create.
The child's status, like that of the dependent wife, is
generally determined by those "others" who have power.
Prison society establishes similar caste systems, as do minority
organizations, ironically duplicating the power structure of the
dominant classes. The white world thus becomes careful of black
feelings as a direct response to black achievement of power; a
power admittedly built on fear of violent revolution. Prison
reform is less for its own sake than it is a placation. So, too,
discussion of the rights of children becomes possible in an
atmosphere marked by an increasing fear and distrust of the young.
The idea of respect becomes equated with weakness in the
relationship between adults and children. It is as though the
adult world feels perpetually at risk in some symbolic struggle.
To keep from being at the mercy of the child, the adult must at
all costs maintain control. Expressions of respect are as
inconsistent with this necessity as they are in racism or sexism.
In all three, the function of control is to retain power. The
favored method of domination is a substantive reduction of
humanity, the most popular aspect of which is the invalidation of
feeling. The quality of "childishness" as an attribute
or accusation is frequently leveled against "inferior"
individuals or groups and infantilizing is a long and
honored-in-the-practice technique of ensuring harmlessness.
To deny the validity of children's feelings is to reject their
humanity. If we are to admit children to the kingdom of
"real people," if we are to respect them and value their
individuality and their uniqueness, we must, of course, set them
free. Only insofar as we can convince ourselves and them of their
subhuman qualities can we maintain our control over them. If they
are little animals, irrational and potentially dangerous to
themselves as well as to others, we can ignore their needs when
their interests are contrary to our own.
And it is on the altar of self-interest that we must finally
sacrifice our pretensions about our feelings for children. The
child is considered unreasonable and irrational when he makes
demands that we are unable to meet or prefer to ignore. Yet,
compared to adults, the irrationality among children is not
especially noteworthy. On the contrary, the cause and effect of
childhood demands are models of mathematical elegance. On those
occasions when their demands are "unreasonable," the
needs that inspire "irrationality" are not. It is to
their needs we claim to be attending and it is scarcely a recent
discovery that adequately met needs displace unreasonable
demands just as surely as inadequately met needs create them.
One might be tempted to attribute adult impatience with the
feelings of children to the rapidly stepped-up tempo of modern
life. Perhaps simpler societies and extended families provided
time to listen to children. Today cocktails are being served in
the hour made famous by Longfellow,1 and among the affluent
as well as the disadvantaged, assorted anxieties occupy the
attentions of crisis-oriented adults. The exigencies of modern
life prevent many adults from hearing what the children are
saying. The child who must express rage in order to gain attention
has become a familiar behavior problem. More acceptable, but, of
course no less injured, is the child who has learned to repress,
conceal, and distort his feelings in order to protect them from
ridicule or denial.
Historically, the preoccupation with child control rather than
child development seems to be independent of the complexities of
life. Until recently, development and control were synonymous. The
Romans, the Ancient Greeks, the Bible: myriad sources emphasized
the importance of controlling the child and youth. By the
sixteenth and early seventeenth century, parents were deemed
responsible for the bodies and souls of their offspring, but it
was not until the latter half of the seventeenth century, with the
rejection of the rights of primogeniture, that the idea of
"fairness" to children was expressed.
By the late 1700s, diaries and letters had begun to express
love for family and in particular for children, although that
"love" was primarily directed at their health and
education. The attention to the feelings of children is reflected
in this exchange from General de Martagne's letters to his wife:
…I should sell my last shirt, if I had nothing else, to see
my children on the same level as all the others of their age and
rank. They must not be brought into the world to humiliate us
with their ignorance and behavior. I think of nothing else, my
dear, but of repairing my fortune to ensure their happiness, but
if they wish to ensure mine, they must work hard and not waste
Over 200 years have passed. Little has changed except perhaps
the extent of family ambitions.
Anyone can know
how children feel. They feel pretty much as we do.
|Today's parent wishes to
give his children at least as much as the neighbors'
children and, with a little luck, a lot more. There remains
intact, however, the child's role as a reflection of the
family's status and worth, as well as the invisible contract
whereby the parents' sacrifice is repaid by the work and
behavior of the child. Today's parent is surely no less
concerned. The child development question of most interest
to parents now, as then, is discipline. The child who will
not "mind" is an indescribable threat to the
parent. He is a source of irritation and rage - and often a
blind rage at that. Perfectly intelligent, well-balanced men
and women turn to screaming hysterics in the face of a
child's intransigence. A visit to any park or playground
will give both credence to the prevalence of a dislike for
children and a reason for it. Children are stubborn.
Children are uncontrollable. Children are unreasonable.
Children are irritating and difficult, all of which is a
way of saying that children very often do not readily do
what adults wish them to do. Even a modicum of common
sense would lead one to expect this to occur with
predictable frequency, and yet the anger evoked is so out of
proportion as to call for a more serious examination.
What actually is at stake for the adult when his authority is
flaunted by a child? Why is his anger so disproportionate?
Conversations with a number of young fathers and mothers
produced the following:
"You can't walk away. If you have an argument with
another adult or your husband or someone you can leave the room
or the house or even just go away. You can end the relationship.
With a child you're trapped... it's the ultimate
"When a child disobeys, it makes your feel so
"I think you get jealous. Jealous of the child's freedom
to let go or do what he wants to while you have responsibilities
you have to take care of."
"It's the old unwritten contract. I have agreed to take
care of you and in return you will do what I say. When the child
breaks the contract, you get pretty angry."
"It's the irrationality of the child... it's
frightening, like something insane. No cause and effect. You
know it's more terrible when a man is squashed by a safe falling
out of an upstairs window than when a man falls out of a boat
and is drowned. He's dead in either case, but in the first it is
irrational - he did nothing to cause it."
"It's postponed anger. A sort of overreaction because
it's been saved up."
"I get angry with my child because he's made me angry
rather than because of what he's done."
"If you believe it's the child's job to behave, you get
angry because you're doing your job and he isn't doing his. It's
"It's easier if you believe in spanking. That way you
explode, release your anger, give him the out for his guilt, and
it all subsides. You have better control that way."
"If you believe your job is to educate the child, then
when you become angry you feel you've blown the show and you get
angry on top of your anger."
"I get scared of my own anger and I think sometimes I
get hysterical as a result not of what the child has done but of
"It's worse than being angry at another adult. The other
adult acts as a brake on your anger. You know you won't go out
of control. The other adult won't let you. With a child you get
scared. He's too helpless to control you and you are scared as
to where your anger might lead you."
Excessive anger can give the parent an unwelcome glimpse of his
own childishness, as some of these responses suggest. He stands -
driven by rage - on the brink of his own remembered helplessness.
Or, he may be made only too well aware of the insecurities of his
everyday life. The child's refusal to accept authority is a sharp
reminder of the parent's daily helplessness - in work, in
marriage, in so many relationships.
Not the least of the threatening qualities of children is their
unpredictability. It is our awareness of their barely controlled
energy that seems to threaten us. The child may not choose to play
by the adult rules. He may, in fact, not know what the rules are
but prefer to do it his way, as children very often insist on
doing. This is frightening, for the rules we have concocted often
hold together our personalities as well as our lives. It is a fear
of impending violence not only to our persons but to the fabric of
our lives that we often feel in the presence of the vaguely
harnessed power of the adolescent; a power at once sexual and
anarchistic. It is a display of an energy we have mastered,
perhaps destroyed. We cannot endure to feel its emanations in our
children. It is the child's anarchy we must repress and, failing,
fear. In the threatened absence of our protective rules, we fear
to stand revealed and therefore vulnerable before our children and
Anyone can know how children feel. They feel pretty much as we
do. Perhaps that's the problem. Perhaps we cannot respect the
feelings of children because we have never learned to respect our
own feelings, especially our feelings about children.
Between the dark and the daylight,
When the night is beginning to lower,
Comes a pause in the day's occupations,
That is known as the Children's Hour.
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow,
from "The Children's Hour"
2 General de Martagne's
letters to his wife, 1760-1780, as quoted in Aries, Philippe, Centuries of Childhood.
Reprinted from Coigney, Virginia, Children Are People Too: How We Fail Our Children and How We
Can Love Them, Chapter 4. New York: William Morrow and Co., 1975.