Adages are tricky little devils. They weasel their way into our vernacular because they’re cute or clever-sounding, sometimes even a bit witty. The problem is, not unlike an unwanted house guest, once they get comfortable in their new surroundings, adages are not eager to leave – even when the appointed time arrives. To the contrary, like their “human” counterparts, adages seem to have an innate sense that if they can just hang around long enough, eventually they will “grow” on their hosts and actually be “invited” to stay on a little bit longer. Unfortunately, in the case of adages, “a little bit longer” can last for centuries. When that happens, adages begin to acquire a sense of legitimacy, an air of truth. In some instances, strangely, they can even come to be perceived as a guideline for behavior! Regrettably, such is the case with the adage that “children are meant to be seen and NOT heard” – a saying that traces its roots to at least the 15th Century, where it originally and, in my mind, most distressingly applied to young ladies. The adage stemmed from a misguided belief that young women could best demonstrate their “good breeding” (and, by extension, their “marriageable qualities”) by dressing well, acting politely, and refraining from speaking – except in response to first being directly spoken to.
Over time, the adage grew to embrace all children. Indeed, it was not uncommon, well into the 20th Century, to hear adults, particularly those who either didn’t have children or whose children had grown (and apparently left their parents with a with a severe case of amnesia or at least short term memory loss!) cavalierly toss the phrase around every time they found themselves in the presence of a child throwing a tantrum. In fact, I’m pretty confident I heard my own parents (and certainly theirs) pull it out on occasion, as a means of “shutting us up” or expressing their displeasure over other parents’ failure “to control” their kids’ behavior. I shudder to think of how many “voices” have been silenced or stifled in the last several hundred years as a result of that misguided adage and the parental mindset it inspired. Regrettably, while the phrase itself seems to have finally begun to have worn out its welcome as part of the modern day parental vocabulary, my sense is that, perhaps unknowingly and quite unintentionally, parents continue to convey the same message to their children, resulting in the same “chilling effect,” in a myriad of other perhaps more subtle, but no less detrimental, ways.
Maybe we insist on “perfection” not only in what our children do, but in what they say, and “accept nothing less” (e.g., we are too quick to be critical, to demean or to summarily dismiss our children’s spoken or written expressions of their beliefs, desires or feelings). Perhaps we’ve created a family dynamic where at least the perception is that only certain emotions are “allowed” to be expressed (e.g., “if you don’t have something good to say, don’t say it all” (Eee gads, another one of those darn adages!?!). In other instances, the family home may be or at least appear to be already fragile, causing a sensitive, but longing to be expressive child, to be “afraid” to rock the proverbial boat with their thoughts and feelings. Instead, they become quietly, dangerously compliant, swallowing their “voice,” rather than run the risk that they will be the straw that breaks the family’s back. Maybe it’s far less subtle than that. Maybe, as parents, we simply don’t “have” or take the time to be fully present when our children try to express themselves or to really listen to what is being said. Instead, we constantly interrupt or talk over them. We don’t take proactive steps to encourage and/or facilitate open lines of communication.
As someone who has worked hard to parent two “kids” of my own for the better part of the past 26 years and, in the process, spent a considerable amount of time, in a wide variety of different settings, with hundreds, if not thousands of other children, adolescents and young adults along the way, I can assure you of at least two things: (1) children are intent on being (and, contrary to the centuries old adage, are entitled to be ) both seen AND heard; and (2) one way or another they WILL BE heard – either in a healthy and constructive way (e.g., through their spoken or written words, their tears, their laughter, their anger, their frustrations and disappointments, etc.) or in considerably more hurtful ways. Because, at the end of the day, in this important respect, children and adolescents really are no different that we adults are. We all have a voice – and all of us want/expect/need that voice to be heard. We also want (and deserve to have) the honest expressions of our minds and our hearts validated – and respected. The only real difference is that the voices of our children are “smaller” and more fragile. They are less refined, less sophisticated. They often are “unfiltered,” due to a lack of maturity or sensitivity. They are sometimes mistaken or rude or “inappropriate.” But then again, so, at times, are ours!
As parents, we have the privilege of helping to “shape” those voices, but we also have a non-delegable duty, to first provide an environment where we encourage, rather than discourage, their healthy expression – with the understanding that those voices will be heard.