Ever since my days as a teacher, I’ve found myself referring to children in unique ways. When I worked in a classroom, in 2nd-4th grade and high school, I always called my students “friends.” Often I got flack from my fellow teachers, significantly older and more experienced than I, saying that referring to the students as “friends” would take away my authority. They feared that I wouldn’t be able to have the control, the presence I needed, if I referred to them or, worse in their eyes, treated them as “friends.”
I always felt the opposite to be true. My friends, whether they were my students or grown-ups that I had a strong connection with, were some of the people that I held in the highest regard. I always have the utmost respect for my friends and they are some of the people that I care about most in life. By choosing to refer to my students as “friends,” I always hoped that I would convey the message that they were special to me, they were important and that I respected them. I always hoped that by showing them respect, that I’d get it in turn. And, most often, I did.
Now that I am not teaching, not in a classroom anyways, I’ve found myself thinking, often, about the way we choose to refer to our children and how that impacts the way we think of them, treat them, and how they, in turn, treat us.
Little Ones, Not Just about Size
As you may have noticed, throughout these pages and in our publication we most often refer to our children and the children in our audience, as little ones. That way of referring to them has always felt right to me and not simply because of their physical size. For some reason referring to young people as children or kids has always felt a little strange to me. In a way, it seems like it puts little ones into a separate category. Rather than simply being younger or smaller than grown-ups, they are different. They are kids.
And while, of course, they are different, I don’t think they are as different as is often assumed. In fact, these days I think we too often separate young people from the real, grown-up world. Thinking, somehow, that they aren’t equipped or able to participate in real, meaningful ways. I think too often that we, for lack of a better term, “dumb things down” to a level we think that they are able to understand. In all honesty, I think, if given the opportunity, our little ones are capable of understanding and doing so much more. And, if given the opportunity, they will really surprise us, and themselves, with all that they are capable of.
Real Tools, Real Work
Just last week as I was preparing to work on the nail art project with my little guy, 3.5 years old, I hemmed and hawed. Should I get him a real hammer? What about a hammer just for kids? Can he really handle the project? Is putting a hammer, and nails, in the hands of a three-year-old really a good idea? What if he gets hurt?
During all that deliberation, I remembered a TED talk that I’ve watched at least a handful of times. Gever Tully, founder of the Tinkering School, talking about the 5 Dangerous Things you should let your kids do. And while I’m not ready to have my little one tinker with fire, yet. And I’m not ready to hand him a pocket knife, yet. I’m certainly ready to let him work with a hammer. And, more than that, he’s ready too.
Ultimately, I opted to get him his first hammer. His first real tool. A tool that he will carry with him and use for many years to come.
And then as we sat together to do the project, I taught him how to use it safely. How to keep his fingers clear. How to watch the nail as he hit it. And, thing is, he used that tool – a real tool capable of doing real work (and real damage) – more carefully and deliberately than the toy tools he has around the house. Once he was given the ground rules, when the expectations were set firmly and explained thoroughly, he was ready to work. And he did.
Nail by nail he used that hammer, carefully pounding each into the wood. And with each nail he finished, you could see his confidence grow. He knew this was a hammer, a real one. He knew it was capable of doing important work, having seen us use one around the house. And he knew that in using one himself, he too was doing important work. Real work, with a real tool.
More than Tools
And all this talk can go beyond tools, it can extend into just about everything we do with kids. So often everything that comes into contact with little ones has been designed (and marketed) specifically to them. Dishes, toys, toothpaste, yogurt, books, movies, games. The list goes on and on and on…
And while things designed specifically for children do have their place, I think little ones are more capable of handling the “real tools” of life than we give them credit for. They are capable of using real dishes, as my little ones do (for what it’s worth, I hold the family record of being the clumsiest and breaking the most bowls). They are capable of watching, and enjoying, movies not created specifically for them (rumor has it that musicals are a big hit with Ella these days). They are capable of playing go-fish with a regular deck of playing cards. Thumbing through grown-up magazines and books. And, often when they do, they become more confident because they are doing grown-up stuff.
They are becoming bigger little ones. And that is a big deal, to them and to us.
Little Ones Should be Little
All this isn’t to say that we should treat little ones as micro adults, throwing at them all that the world has to offer. Not at all. I still believe firmly in the grown-ups role as filter – choosing what to let in, and what to keep out of the lives of our young people. Childhood is a special time where we are free to imagine and play. A time where we are more free from the worries of the world. And it should be.
But it is also a time of growth, a time of rapid learning, a time of developing who these young people will become as they grow into adults. In order to help them on that path, we need to be sure we are allowing them the opportunities they need to tackle real problems and real projects, and to have a chance to dabble in the ways of grown-ups, while still in the safety of our nests.
Giving them those opportunities to do so now will help them grow into the creative, confident, and capable young adults that we want them to be.