I’ve always talked to my kids like they were fellow human beings first. I do not now, nor have I ever—well OK maybe briefly when they were infants but briefly…and they were infants—talked to them like they were some kind of bizarre species that needed specialized communication deployments in order to connect with adults. I have met only a few other parents who talk with their children like I do, I’m afraid, and as a consequence, my children have been frequently caught in a tightly woven web of adult perceptions about what kids need to make sense of their world; suspended in uncomfortable moments from which neither they nor I can escape. I have no history to speak of of talking with them in a high-pitched voice, bent down toward them so our faces are on the same level, my legs bent, my knees together and cupped by my palms, eyebrows raised to show my supreme intensity and total immersion in each momentary interaction, the likes of which are typically characterized by lots of questions lobbed at them by one ostensible grownup or another, who I guess believe that everything, everything, everything in adult worlds must be restructured, refitted, rephrased, and reshaped to within an inch of its life because bless their hearts the little darlings must be catered to, catered to, catered to in order to have the slightest hope of functioning.
I have vivid memories of both my children when they were younger suspended in such a web, trapped in an interaction with one of those ostensible grownups who sound anything but grown up to their little ears, trying to dart their eyes over to me in a desperate appeal for rescue. I remember the first time my daughter had someone talk to her in this way which, I would imagine, felt not on-the-same-level at all but quite condescending. I remember the mix of fear and confusion in her expression as she shot that look at me…what is this bending over thing she is doing? And why is she doing those hyper-communicative facial expressions so close to my own face? And why is she smiling so hugely at me and acting so enamored with me when a) I don’t even know her and b) I haven’t even done anything to be enamored with? And why-oh-why is she talking to me in that high-pitched voice, for the love of pete? It’s weird. Creepy even. Now you might think, upon reading this post, that a single look from a small child can’t say all that at once. But I suspect that, if you care for children in most any capacity, you know for a fact that it can and I suspect that you’ve even seen some version of this very pregnant-with-meaning look. Actually, when I saw the look I thought it was astounding that my daughter could say all that with a glance. And also I was hoping with all my might that her wholly dismissive ‘tone’ didn’t get picked up by the woman bent in half singing questions in my daughter’s face because I think the woman might well have come completely unraveled. But really, I thought this was a one-time deal, until I saw her shoot that look at me other times—a look that sometimes appeared to be more about terror than confusion or dismissiveness. And then I saw the same dang look in my son, years later. I realized that my children aren’t afraid of the dark or being left alone; they’re afraid of scary interactions like these when adults treat them like freaks or incompetents. They’re afraid of not being taken seriously as thinking, sentient beings. They’re afraid that the adults who should be taking charge of the world are bent in half smiling inane questions at them instead of standing tall, articulating meaningful ideas with them. And all I can offer is yes, of that you should be afraid. Be very afraid.