Silence or Shouting? Listening to Kids

When I was younger, my father would continually repeat the proverb that, “children should be seen, not heard.” In today’s world, where kids are held in higher regard, this could be interpreted as cruelty. The statement isn’t a reflection on the value of children, but rather about the contributions of a child’s voice. 

I’ve been thinking about this in light of the tragic event in Parkland, Florida. The very high school students who witnessed the shooting are making their voices heard like never before. These kids are engaging with senators and being invited to talk shows to discuss their views. Their reaction has brought forth a fascinating conversation: should we listen to kids when determining policy? 

In this context, people seem to be choosing their side of the argument based upon their view of the second amendment. Gun control proponents seem to be for empowering the kids while opponents seem to view the children as disrespectful.

When it comes to kids, should we silence them or let them shout?

First, I think we need to develop an appreciation for what children can teach adults. 

One of the reasons that adults tend to worship children and/or childhood is because they are the purest version of humanity. Generally, if a child commits an evil or senseless act, they don’t have the capacity to fully comprehend their transgression; we immediately look for an adult to blame. If we adults, then, can continually adopt the innocence of children, the world would be a better place.

The older I get, the more I view the world (and the people within it) with skepticism. This response is learned, developed because I’ve lived long enough to witness virtually every conceivable way that humans can be manipulative. I wish I could unlearn my suspicion and trust more. Yes, a little naïveté is helpful in life.

Potential is the seed of optimism, and kids overflow with potential. I’m a generally optimistic guy, but I constantly fight the urge to deconstruct the half-brained ideas of others. Again, since we adults know that the world isn’t fair, we’re always waiting for the bottom to fall out. Pessimism can prohibit us from imagining how the world could be if we only dared to believe things can change. 

But let’s balance this out. Before we go full Lord of the Flies and let kids run society, we need to admit that there are plenty of reasons why we must be careful to heed the counsel of children.

It’s easy for kids to plead for a changed world, but they generally live in an idyllic world that isn’t the real world. Teenagers rarely cover the costs for their food and lodging. Similarly, few teens bear the burden of supporting people other than themselves. Adult responsibilities impact the way we view life.

The older I get, the more I realize how little I knew when I was younger. In this digital society, with so much information at our fingertips, we confuse knowledge with wisdom. I can think of no better illustration of this fact than the pond conversation from Good Will Hunting. Society has long let youth be served, but there are still some things that can only be learned through time.

This final shortcoming is the outcome of independence and experience. The world is complex, and this requires us to see it through the lenses of others. It’s my belief that very few kids have the ability to see beyond themselves. If I’m asked to consider making a change based on someone’s opinion, I want to make sure they can at least try seeing the world as others might.

So where does this lead us? I had an experience recently that, for me, encapsulates the issue.

Last week I attended a talent show at my daughter’s elementary school. Kids as young as six years old sang and rapped and danced to the glee of the adults in the audience. I don’t remember having a talent show at my grade school, but even if we did, I guarantee we couldn’t hold a candle to many of these kids. Their stage presence was marvelous. They delivered amazing renditions of famous songs and verse.

But as I sat I slowly became less impressed. I began to notice that these performances were just knock-offs; the children merely figured out how to be just like whatever artist they emulated. They mastered the art of mimicry. 

It should be no surprise: this is really what kids have done throughout the ages (see this scene from Jaws as Exhibit A). The key difference today, with access to the world wide web, kids are exponentially better at it. Example: there’s a little girl who has a massive social media following (I’ll refrain from linking it here) just because her mother videotapes her saying lines that a desperate housewife might say. 

As much as these kids might sound like adults, they’re mostly repeating things they’ve heard said by others. And while it’s true that many adults do the very same thing, they’re held to higher levels of accountability than children for doing so.

We tend to confuse mimicry with maturity. They’re not the same thing.

And when we adults laud kids for mimicry, we’re actually limiting their ability to become truly profound. 

So I’m not sure that the proverb that, "children should be seen not heard" holds up to the test of time.  But neither ought we afford children praise for merely repeating what they've heard from adults. I'm not suggesting that this is the response to the kids from Parkland, as they've had a highly traumatic experience, but we must weigh their words carefully. Regardless, we must listen and listen well.

I don’t think this is the opinion of a bitter old man. But we should be leery of a future where we disrespect the wisdom of the ages in favor of the attractiveness of youth.

Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash