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Is respecting children a faux pas? [Oct. 12th, 2016|01:18 pm]
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Some decades ago, during my college days (yes, I'm getting old), I accompanied a friend to his family gathering. I wound up engrossed in conversation with his stepsister J., age 15, whose knowledge and insight impressed me. At dinner, the three of us occupied a conversational niche at the middle of the table. The conversation at the table's end was the sort of speculation that often entertains dinner companions: The women of their parents' and grandparents' generations were taking turns sharing their explanations of some curious phenomenon. They took each other seriously, even though none of them had anything convincing to say on the subject. (My apologies: As much as these events have impressed themselves upon me, the intervening years have been more than sufficient to steal the subject itself from my memory.) A slightly heated debate ensued. At an appropriate gap in the adults' conversation, J., who was seated at their edge, made the usual gesture to draw attention. She began to submit a solution to the question under discussion, in the simple, explanatory tone of one who knows the answer. The adults avoided eye contact with J., and one of them immediately started talking over her (not to her; only to the others), so that they did not hear more than three words from her. It was smoothly done, as if J. had merely tried to interject during an insufficient pause. She politely waited for another pause, and was then interrupted in an identical manner. After the third time it happened, she gave up.

We three "kids" were mystified at this, but had nothing useful to do about it, and so returned to our own conversation. Social clue was not my strong suit then. Arguably, it isn't now either, but hindsight and subsequent experience with human nature have helped me understand that event. If I could send present thoughts to my self of that day, I would have said the following to J.:

"I think I know why they won't let you speak. The purpose of their conversation isn't to answer their question. In fact, if you answered it, they would hate you for it. They are using their hypotheses as a way of gathering recognition from each other. Each one takes a turn sharing an idea, and gets attention and acknowledgement of how clever they are. If you answered the question correctly, it would end their game without their consent. To even listen to you at all, to let you participate in their game, would be to give you as much respect as they are giving each other. Since they don't respect young people, they think that treating you as an equal would denigrate them. Even worse, they've just spent the last ten minutes earnestly trying to answer the question. If you show that you can figure out what they can't, they will feel like idiots, both for being outsmarted by a child, and for having already congratulated each other on their obviously wrong answers."

My gall at their treatment of her would certainly have led me to say this loudly enough for them to hear.

This is not to say that I think little of the speculation game: It often puts in an appearance at our weekly pot luck dinners, and we quite enjoy it. But we usually know when we are talking out of our asses, and nobody loses face when the correct answer is discovered. I personally take care that nobody is excluded: If I catch someone trying and failing to interject their point, I explicitly draw attention to them. (The "someone" is almost always a woman. I don't like that people listen more readily to men, but as long as I have this unwanted male privilege, I will use it to do good.)


Fast forward a couple of decades from the prior incident. Our social dinners typically span roughly one generation. Those of us who have spawned small children leave them to play with each other in a room down the hall, after brief and unsurprisingly disappointing attempts to get them to appreciate what we consider good cooking. But our generation is aging, and the new guests have brought a daughter, E., who is old enough to appreciate the company at the dinner table. Both generations of new guests share geeky interests with the regular guests: Topics include period textiles and cooking with liquid oxygen. The very first words I catch from E. refer to a Vi Hart video. Her other contributions, while rarer than the adults', show great interest in the topics. Her parents had clearly done a great job of serving as her gateway into geek culture.

Geeks, by my definition, are passionate about the subjects that interest them. Sometimes, that passion is expressed through dedicated work in, or exploration of, a subject. Sometimes, it is expressed with wide-eyed wonder and delight: The clear prioritizing of enthusiasm over dignity. Given how people mellow with age, the latter behavior is often associated with children, but occasionally associated with people who are secure enough in their geekery that they don't care about looking "uncool". If you've read this essay, in which I disparage the idea that a person can establish their self-worth by declaring things "beneath" them, you might correctly guess that I feel similarly about trying to establish one's "cool" via an air of indifference. When E.'s father described cooking with liquid oxygen, I was rapt as fuck.

When Karen (my wife, in case you don't know me) told me I wasn't allowed to set the ceiling on fire, I said, "Aw, you're no fun." E.'s eyes went wide for an instant. That, and several other moments throughout the evening, led me to feel that she was gaining an admiration for the unabashed enthusasm I displayed for our topics of conversation. At the end of the evening, the adults had finished with the "so glad to have met you" remarks. I realized that I had the opportunity to say something nice and morale boosting to E., which would be meaningful coming from someone she admired other than her parents (who are contractually bound to say nice things). I like to give people encouragement, and feel that it is especially important for children. I simply said, "Oh, by the way, you're really cool."

Her mother said, "Ah, heh heh heh heh. Yes, that would come from her father's love of science, and my love of history."

This was erasing the compliment by redirecting it toward them, so I added, "And there's also the enthusiasm."

Her mother agreed, "Yes, that's all her." They shortly left.

Later, I started wondering at E.'s mother's response. She and her husband had not lacked for compliments or attention (I had been useless regarding historical fabrics, but Karen had taken up the slack), so why hijack the one compliment aimed at their daughter? Pattern recognition slowly kicked in. The "Ah, heh heh heh heh" meant, "You've just surprised me by committing a faux pas, and now I have to fix it for you." (It puts one in mind of the nervous laughter that preceded the quote, "Surely you're joking, Mr. Feynman.")

Right. I'm in the habit of treating children with full respect. Most adults aren't, and those who don't know me certainly have no reason to expect such behavior. I suspect that E.'s parents would righteously object to anyone accusing them of disrespecting their daughter: They encourage and enable her, and (unlike J.'s elders) accept her participation in their discussions. But authority, including parental authority, carries inherent disrespect of a person's autonomy. Additionally, parents' early years of experiencing their child as an incompetent, energetic menace will tend to delay their later recognition of their child as an independent being, something worthy of respect as more than just the product of their rearing. I regard both of these effects as nearly inescapable, and so I mean it as no reflection on the qualities of E.'s parents when I hypothesize that she, like J., suffered from the inability/unwillingness of adults to treat children with the respect with which they treat each other.

As an aside, I wonder whether anything would have been different had either of them been boys. Would E.'s mother have just said, "Yeah, he is pretty cool, isn't he?" Could J.'s relatives have more easily stomached being upstaged by someone dismissable as a "boy prodigy"? (The term is not as often applied to girls. As of this writing, "boy prodigy" has 21,900 results on Google, compared to 15,400 for "girl prodigy".) I am pointing no fingers regarding sexism; I merely embrace a healthy skepticism regarding the ability of any American (myself included) to fully escape the influence of systemic, patriarchal attitudes.

All right, I'm getting sidetracked. tl;dr: I like to show respect.

This entry was originally posted at http://blimix.dreamwidth.org/42214.html. (comment count unavailable comments there.)

[User Picture]From: jon_leonard
2016-10-13 04:26 pm (UTC)
This is a variant, I think, on the "Respect your elders" value. It's constructive in some forms, but I've definitely seen cases where the cultural norm is that someone younger shouldn't offer their opinion unless asked, and that outweighed getting the right answer. The first story you relate sounds like that to me, and they'd see ignoring J's comment as covering for that faux pas. That doesn't mean I see any good way to improve things, though.
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[User Picture]From: beth_leonard
2016-10-14 05:01 am (UTC)
I wonder if the mother's comment might have been a habit as a result of less-kind things said to their daughter that the mother was used to defending her daughter's geekiness with? "I stand with you, and if they insult you, they're insulting me." and then once they get used to saying it, it just popped out.

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