[Week 38 of 52 Weeks to a Better Relationship With Your Child]
Variations on adult interactions with children
If you, as parents, have good relationships with your children, they come to respect and trust you. They recognize you provide them with a combination of security, affection, and guidance that can really only come from an adult. Unfortunately, as soon as they are old enough to understand, you need to teach them that other adults need to be evaluated for trustworthiness.
This is not to say that you teach your children to be afraid of everyone. What you are going for is practical realism that will protect them from neglect, harm or, misdirection from other adults. Any other adults who are offended by this approach are likely the very ones the children need to be most wary of.
Let’s begin by listing types of adult-child relationships, other than parent-child, there might be. Some relationships might be a combination of any of these:
- adult family member with close blood ties
- adult family member with frequent contact and interaction
- adult family member with high interest in the child’s success
- adult family member who is more distantly related
- adult family member that the child is comfortable being around
- adult family member that the child is comfortable being left with
- adult family member you as parent trust enough to leave your child with
- adult non-family member you as a parent trust enough to leave your child with
- adult you trust to teach your child good principles of character
- adult you trust to teach your child hands on skills or factual knowledge
- adult you don’t know well enough to leave your child with
- adult with obvious differences in priorities and principles than your’s
- adult who makes you uncomfortable in seeking interaction with your child
- adult who means well, but is unreliable in some way
- adult who thinks of your child as part of a group
- adult who thinks he is in charge of your child by virtue of job description
- adult who is not interested in your child
- adult who is paid to take care of or watch your child
Just reading this list should be a clue that the younger a child is the less capable he will be of evaluating other adults. A young child is at the mercy of any adults in charge, so wise parents will be careful who they leave their children with.
Is there a place for respecting your elders?
It is good for children to understand that most adults have more experience and insight into life than they do. Respect is really a way for the child to acknowledge this, as well as to be humble and politely responsive. The response may be very limited, because children should certainly not be required to do whatever any random adult asks of them, but usually some sort of considerate recognition is reasonable. At the very least, this type of response and attitude will help build life-long habits of courtesy that will be useful in both family and business situations.
Even if the adults are not known well enough to be trusted on a deeper level, casual one-on-one interactions with adults is a chance for a child to practice the sort of mutual respect that is necessary for meaningful interactions in life. It is also a chance to learn things. Adults have a knowledge and experience base to offer that other children don’t. Children should be made aware of this.
But politeness and respect are not just for what we can get from people. Showing respect is about being gracious and recognizing the value of other people. It is about realizing that most adults are taking on responsibilities in life at a different level than most children. And, as adults age, it is about being kind to those who are worn and weary by time and circumstance.
Young children need you to evaluate adults for them
You probably won’t be leaving your children in the care of other adults unless it is for the children’s own good. If parents will not be there, young children will need someone else to take care of them. (This is a good time to again distinguish between true childhood and government/institutional school imposted childhood. Some of that is covered in How Your Attitude Toward Maturity Affects Your Child and Helping Children Grow Into Independence.) If your children need that level of supervision, they also need you to be very concerned about evaluating the adults you leave them with.
A child who can’t talk or who will have a difficult time understanding or explaining things should not be left in the care of someone unless you are very certain of that person’s trustworthiness. The only way to adequately evaluate that is to have spent time with the adult yourself. No license or college degree truly assesses someone’s character to the level needed for trusting them with your precious children.
No, you can’t have my children to raise as your own
Children only have so much room in their lives for relationships. Time is a huge factor in relationships. If you concede large of chunks of your children’s time to other adults, you will greatly reduce your own influence in your children’s lives. This influence is crucial to help them wisely evaluate adults in their lives.
To have a strong influence in your children’s lives there needs to be plenty of opportunity for discussion of daily life. Such discussions will not happen enough unless there is enough relaxed time so that you can both get immersed in the conversation, free to delve into whatever. It is in seemingly unimportant or unplanned discussions that important details about other interactions come to light.
In such conversations, concerns about other people can be dealt with in a less stressful way. Suggestions can be made and insights given. These might be cautions or just things to be aware of. The idea is to prepare the child for future decision making, as well as help him feel reinforced in making appropriate decisions.
If this is a regular part of life, unnecessary outright conflict 1) between you and your child, or 2) between you and other adults can be avoided. Your child is prepared to avoid unhealthy attachments. You will avoid needing to confront another adult meddling in your child’s life.
There have been numerous times when my husband and I have listened to the situations in a child’s life and predicted what a certain person was after or was going to behave like. We did not do this in a way that belittled other, but simply recognized patterns and choices. By the time our children were young adults, we had such a good reputation in this regard that they were always eager to run things by us in their now more independent world. Sometimes talking with us was just decompressing, sometimes it helped them sift through their perspective better, and sometimes it gave them options they hadn’t thought of.
Learning to stand up to adults
When children have good relationships with their parents and other adults close to them, it can be a disconcerting when they find they cannot trust an adult. Maybe they just can’t trust a certain adult to be kind. Other times it is a matter of honesty. There are obviously times when some adults are ignorant, or lack self-control, or have different moral standards.
Deciding how to respond may be different depending on the type of relationship the child has with the adult in question. If no one is being injured or stolen from, this may be an example of live and let live, but trust sparingly. If it is someone they work for, they might have to decide if they can continue to be employed there. If it affects other relationships they enjoy, they may have to decide what to put up with, while at the same time not allowing themselves to be bullied.
Learning to evaluate adults is a good exercise in separating the irritating quirks we all have from the habits that are detrimental. It is basically the same as deciding who is a good friend or not, except that children are often more vulnerable to adults than vice versa, so need to be better prepared to deal with things.
In most cases, there doesn’t need to be a confrontation. The child just needs to know that it is quite okay to disregard any adult who doesn’t show good qualities or decisions. Most adults of dubious character also do not have the fortitude for long term relationships. They can be kept at arms length until they fade into the scenery. This can be done for college professors or co-workers.
An adult evaluation checklist for your child
We all have checklists in our head for how we evaluate people. Help your child develop one. This is not supposed to be an exercise in being nit-picky or self-righteous. We can evaluate others with an eye to our own foibles.
Also, keep in mind that it takes TIME to get to really know people. Sometimes it is just differences in communication habits or personalities that may challenge us at first. Sometimes a person we feel immediately comfortable with ends up not being who we thought they were.
- How long have I known this person?
- What do I like about this person?
- What about this person makes me uncomfortable?
- How does this person treat others?
- How does this person talk about others who aren’t there?
- Does this person do what he says he will?
- Does this person work responsibly?
- Is this person always envious of others?
- Can this person have discussions without getting defensive all the time?
- Does this person take responsibility for mistakes?
- Does this person take action to right things he has done wrong?
- Does this person complain a lot?
- Does this person build up other relationships I have or try to destroy them?
- Is this person kind to my family?
- Does this person try to understand different perspectives?
- Does this person always make fun of other people?
- Is this person compassionate?
- Does this person think before acting?
Quite possibly you can think of other things for such a list. It is not meant to be a check list, but more of a check on reality.
In the end, learning to evaluate adults begins and ends with the child (or whomever) evaluating himself. A child needs to be honest with himself in order to make a worthwhile evaluation of others. He needs to gain a better overall understanding of what good character is and whether or not he is also someone of good character. And if the child develops good character, he will attract others of good character and there will be even more of a buffer against those of poor character, adult or otherwise.