Tram nr. 2 crosses Brunnenmarkt, the colorful and loud street market in Ottakring. That’s where the boy got in. His mother was busy on the phone but gestured him to sit in the empty seat right in front of me. He held his steamy kebab with both hands and was biting into it. He seemed hungry but also happy. He just had been to the barber, his hair was short and carefully trimmed. His mother, while she kept her phone conversation alive, had a watchful eye on him. Her face was blank, perhaps she’d put on a little frown every now and then. But the boy… He must have been around 8 or 9 years old. I couldn’t see his face but I could feel his satisfaction. I guess he was happy with the haircut, I imagine he had spent at least a couple of hours following his mother around and she rewarded him for that with a hot and juicy sandwich. Perched on his seat he did not seem to mind that his jacket was perhaps a bit too thin or if his jogging trousers weren’t good enough to keep him warm on that cold evening. These seemed to be things of little importance to him. I could feel from where I sat that he was happy. And I was happy with him.
As simple as it might sound though, making a kid happy (with himself and with the world) is not always easy. I often think they are confused about what we want from them, I often see that they react from a certain state of mind, not being capable of seeing your point of view and sometimes even when they see what you mean, they still need a bit of time to understand you fully. Of course, you can give them candy or put them in front of the TV all day and they’ll be out of your way. But that has nothing to do with them being happy, does it? It’s all pretty hard and time consuming work. You can have exhausting discussions with an adult and you can still not succeed in changing their minds. With kids it is even more difficult because, as you argue with them, or as you try to give them arguments for your actions, you also need to “show” them what discussing means and how reasoning works. As if the medium and the message were contracted into one.
I find myself startled every time I hear parents forbidding their children this or that by saying that “they (the parents) don’t like it”. Listen to this:
Don’t throw your Lego bricks on the wall. I don’t like that!
Don’t play with your food. I don’t like that!
Don’t be so loud. I don’t like that!
I am not sure whether this is something that only happens in the German world, whether it has to do with the language being spoken here or with the attitude one has towards the world or with the relationship they have with their children. Whatever it is, I simply can’t understand it. Throwing Lego bricks on the wall is not an activity that needs to be encouraged, certainly. But it is also not something that should be forbidden simply because it fails to make a parent happy (i.e., “I don’t like it!”). It might damage the wall, it might make too much noise when it bounces off the ground, it might hit something else if thrown in an uncontrolled manner but it has nothing to do with whether you, as a parent, like that or not. Doing something, even if it were good or bad, pleasant or less so, is never (or, at least, almost never) done to please an adult. If that’s the way you look at this, you might be in for unexpected surprises later on in your child’s life and even your own.
Why not telling them what the real problem is? Why not explaining what it means to have a wall punctured here and there? Why not telling them that the bricks themselves can get damaged and they can’t play with them any longer? Why not simply saying that they should trust you and your judgement, that if they would think about it, they would perhaps reach the same conclusion? Yes, it takes more time and yes it is strenuous to do it over and over again. But you have to do it. Otherwise, “I don’t like that!” is only the threatening pendant to giving them candy or putting them in front of the TV.
Perhaps I use words like “saying”, “explaining” and “telling” too often here but, actually, we “can do things with words” (think of Austin and his speech acts!). And I think that the way we choose our words and how we use them has a tremendous impact on our children. They learn from us often just by imitating us, by repeating for themselves what we say out loud, by internalizing our replicas and our demands. You should not be surprised if you hear your child swearing after you’ve been swearing yourself. Should you try to forbid him to do that? On what grounds would you? Can you separate the moral realm into lesser moral deeds and higher moral deeds? How can you do some things that you, yourself, call bad? Why should your child not be allowed to do them?
Now, I do not mean that you should be a saint and that your behavior whenever you are around your offspring should always be spotless. Of course we are far from perfect and of course we make mistakes (over and over again), but we should at least try to be conscious of our choice of words and actions. We should remember how we re/act when we are angry or upset and we should not ask or demand from your children more than they demand from us.