Build Them Up

I recently watched a stand-up comedy special by Chris Rock on Netflix in which he said that parents need to stop telling their children that they are special. It was so worth watching. And I really do see his point and what he means from his own world-view. Certainly it’s good not to raise entitled, selfish little brats, especially in this day and age when it’s pretty easy to do just that. But I’ve got to tell you- both in my experience as a mother and as a teacher- I feel like there’s nothing wrong with pointing out what is special, valuable and unique to the child that possesses those qualities.

Children are the most amazing human beings. There’s purity, honesty and an inquisitiveness in children that just doesn’t exist in such abundance in the rest of humanity. And there’s goodness in their hearts. You can just see it shining out through their little faces. One of the reasons I went into Early Childhood and Primary teaching is that I just think little people are so fascinating and awesome to be around. I truly believe there’s no bad kids in the world. All they need is opportunities to thrive, someone to believe in them and give them high expectations to rise to. Someone to point out to them what makes them special. That’s not how you raise brats, that’s how you raise successful people with good self-esteem and resilience.

I’m not saying that means every kid is going to wander out of high school ready to be a doctor or a lawyer or a famous something something. Maybe they’ll be a starving artist or a tradie or a caregiver or whatever they like. But they’ll be more able to achieve that success and just be plain old happy in life, whatever they do. Maybe they won’t all be astrophysicists but they can definitely set and achieve goals according to their individual strengths and desires. I’ve met kids who are not at all academically blessed but who have the most beautiful, generous souls. These kids are some of the greatest pleasures to teach. And they deserve to feel good about themselves for that. They deserve to have to world open up for them and offer a place for their gifts.

But here’s the rub. The world is not always kind or fair. And that’s why I understand what Chris Rock was trying to say. Society is the thing that cuts kids down, and they do need to be prepared for that. Pretty much from day dot they’re bombarded with self-esteem shredding information and stereotypes that put children in a little box and close the lid.

The depth and breadth of gender-biased advertising alone, in terms of accessibility is just incredible and expanding. How quickly things escalate too. One day it’s a seemingly well-meaning little comment that calls a little girl pretty and a little boy strong as their main features. It’s the well-televised hand that exclusively offers the make-up set or toy broom to one gender and the tool set or toy cars to the other. It’s the voice that tells little boys not to cry and little girls not to be so sensitive. And the next thing you know- we’ve got teenage girls believing that unless they wax every square inch of their bodies bar the top of their heads and have a thigh gap, they have limited or no value as people. We’ve got angry, hurt teenage boys who don’t know where the safe place to put their thoughts or feelings is turning to some good old fashioned aggression. You’ve got LGBTQI+ teenagers or those struggling with gender identity left filled with enormous shame and confusion. It bewilders me that this message is not only still being sent but also that it seems to be getting louder and more forceful. What with the data collected online and targeted advertising that’s all over the shop- how long will it actually be before such self-deprecating nonsense is actually streamed direct into our children’s retinas?

The importance placed on academics as a precursor for happiness or success as part of society has also really shaped our school system. The curriculum is so completely overloaded already and teachers seem to be more and more swamped with paperwork pertaining to standardised tests and data collection (not to inform teaching but to rank students and schools). I can tell you right now- the bulk of teachers bloody hate it. But educators generally take it in their stride and just put it on the stack whilst still trying to put students’ social and emotional needs front and centre as well. It certainly sends a message though- achieve, achieve, achieve or pop yourself in the useless or delinquent box.

Up until recently I thought building children up as much as possible was protecting them from this crap fest. But now I’m starting to think it might actually be better described as preparing them for it. A really fantastic tutor I had when I was at uni once told us that as teachers we need to be able to back up every planned experience we make for our students. Maybe that doesn’t apply as much when you’re a parent but it does make me think we all need to think before we speak with children. We need to use our words and actions to inform them that despite what society might think, they are important, strong and useful. Of course they aren’t all going to excel in the same way, but every little person should be championed for who they are. To survive in this cut throat, image dominated world, retaining that childlike heart full of goodness and having faith in oneself is paramount. If children don’t get that message of positivity from the important adults in their life, where are they going to get it? How is society going to progress without little people who grow into adults who have the freedom to be themselves and know that that is just wonderful and as it should be? One way or another, those grown-ups are going to become the voice in their little heads which is such a privilege and responsibility.

So when push comes to shove and at the risk of raising children who think a little too much of themselves- and with apologies to Chris Rock- I think I’m going to have to keep telling my girls (and my students in future) how magnificent they are. I think they’re going to need to know that to build a kinder, fairer world where there are no good kids and no bad kids- just children in their remarkable natural form.

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