On being raised as a “small person” instead of being “treated like a child”

Guest post by Mia
By: Mark Eslick -- CC BY 2.0
By: Mark EslickCC BY 2.0

I’m often complimented on my good behavior in the form of “your parents raised you well.” I tell my parents this and they’re often just as confused as I am. We’re all aware of the good intention in these comments, but it’s almost as if they’re saying that even at the age of 21, I still don’t know any better when it comes to human decency. These comments merely remind me of how different certain people perceive familial roles and values.

Those in their 60s or older will have a different perspectives of family values than my 21-year-old self. In some cases, children are seen and not heard. Children are always a reflection of their parents and if they reflect well, that good behavior is accredited to the parent(s) and not the child. It is true that your parents have an enormous impact on who you are and who you grow up to be. Typically they’re supposed to be there for at LEAST the first 18 years of your life and if they are, that influence will be strong whether its a positive influence or not.

The idea that a child was a child and nothing more was never really perpetuated in my home. I never felt that there was a role that I was assigned to or an expectation that I had to meet. I never really saw anything different in my family dynamic when I was young because… why would I? This was my reality. Why would I question it? Growing up I began to see that my parents had a far more interesting approach to raising me than I realized.

I wasn’t treated as a child growing up. I was treated like a person… a small person.

I remember many instances where I was treated like a small human as opposed to a child when I was nine years old. My dad had proposed to my mom in 2002. My mother never really cared to get married though she was never outright against it. I’m pretty sure she was only determined to have a baby out of wedlock to rebel against her Catholic parents. Though in 2002 when my father proposed, my mother was touched and figured that if they spent that last 10 years together, 9 of them raising their daughter, then why not?

What had baffled me at the time was when they came to me soon afterwards and asked my opinion. My mother asked me how I felt about her and my dad getting married. I believe my answer was something along the lines of “You’re not married already?” She smiled and explained to me why they weren’t married and asked me again how I felt about it. What I said next was something else that baffled me. I still don’t understand the mind of my nine-year-old self. I said something to the effect of “Okay, you can get married but can you wait until I’m in 3rd grade?” Why that was so important, I have no idea.

With raised and confused eyebrows she said “Okay” and they wed in August of the same year, right before I entered 3rd grade.

I’ve told this story many times and recently I’ve gotten the response of “Your parents asked you your opinion about their marriage and they respected your conditions?” To which I can only shrug and say…”Yeah.”

Overall, the fact that my parents involved me in matters of the home and let me have a voice about those things is what still shocks some people I know. I’m able to understand and appreciate my upbringing now, and how my parents influenced me. They influenced me greatly yes, they still do — but I still was able to be my own person. I could be a person. Not a specific person (i.e. the “child role”). I was a person and my behavior was accredited to me because they were my actions and no one else’s.

My mother said something very profound to me when I asked her why she wanted children. She looked at me very seriously and said: “There’s so much evil and corruption in this world. People do awful things to each other for awful reasons and I want to fight that even if it’s just a little. I do the best I can as myself but I wanted to have and raise you because I wanted to bring another decent human being in the world to help fight the evil. We need that.”

I wasn’t born to be a child. I was born to be a human.

Comments on On being raised as a “small person” instead of being “treated like a child”

  1. This is brilliant. Even at ten months old, my son looks at people strangely when they talk to him in a “baby voice”, because we never do. We talk to him like we talk to each other, and that includes funny voices and absurd language, but we want him to know, even now, that his place is just as important as ours regardless of his age.

    Kids should be involved in family decisions that might impact them, and their voices should be heard. This just makes sense to me, but maybe that’s because my parents always let us have a voice.

  2. Wanting to counteract evil and injustice by raising decent human beings is one of my (and my husband’s) biggest reasons for wanting to have kids. I worry about whether this reasoning is really fair to the person being brought into the world, but it seems like the author doesn’t mind, so hopefully that’s a good sign.

  3. I love your mother’s explanation for wanting to have a child, because that’s my thoughts behind having a child. It’s been such a difficult struggle to tell people that I don’t want to have a child just to have one, that it’s a relief to hear it in this context from someone else.
    Thank you.

  4. I was raised as a small person as well (complete with calling my parents by their first names until my grandmother told my father it was simply unacceptable), and I just want to share an alternate perspective here.

    My parents treated me like a small person, which meant stuff like being left at home alone by age 4, being responsible for arranging my own childcare by age 6, dealing with my own doctor’s appointments by age 10. I have no doubt that being raised in this way us part of what made me a hyper-competent and independent adult (all good things!)… but I will also say that I was a neurotic, nervous child.

    Being treated like “a little person” as a child, meant that there were times when I didn’t allow myself to just be a child. The weight of responsibility isn’t always conducive to WHEE YAY CAREFREE CHILDHOOD GOOD TIMES! I was a weird, worried, very cautious kid, and I think a big part of that was that my parents treated me like a little person, and I took that responsibility very seriously.

    Again, I like the way I was raised (and my parents are both awesome!), but I think there’s a balance to be found. When you treat children like small adults, they sometimes FEEL like small adults, and at least for me as a child… that wasn’t always an especially secure or fun feeling.

    • I agree that balance is important. That’s one of the things I think my parents did very well – I knew my voice was important to them, but also knew that the responsibility for running the household rested squarely on their shoulders, not mine. They gave me age-appropriate chores (I honestly can’t remember a time before I set the table for dinner), and were very good about teaching me how to do various life skills. At the same time, they were VERY clear that they were the parents and intended to take care of me, whether I liked it or not. It wasn’t always glamorous – my 16th birthday present was a checking account and a promise to teach me how to use it – but it did make me feel comfortable growing and trying new things within the stable framework they provided.

    • I definitely think it’s striking a balance, which I just blogged a little bit about. That for me, I see my child as a Tiny Human, not a mini-adult, and that part of being a good parent is recognizing the emotional and cognitive developmental places children are in or should be in. I think there’s a difference between letting tiny humans know that their souls are just as equal as big human souls, but that it’s okay to be carefree and not worry about finances (or figuring out your own childcare, or doctors, or etc) because that is the Adult responsibility, and they get to worry about picking up their Legos.

    • So so agree. The huge privilege of being a child is shelter from and gradual boundaried exposure to, the awesome (in the old fashioned sense of the word) responsibility of choices and decisions. Choices and decisions are often heavy burdens, as anyone who has seen a toddler in meltdown over more than one option for pudding will know.

      As the first of my parents four experiments I was raised as a small person. My parents were so keen to treat me as individual and nurture my every talent, both creative types I was their favorite project. When brothers and sisters arrived in quick succession my parents definitely had to dial down those expectations, sometimes the practicalities of four children under the age of 8 just meant making choices for us, treating us generically as children not the special snowflakes we were. I am pretty sure that what my parents wanted for us was directly the result of what they didn’t get so much in the large families they both grew up in.

      The shit totally hit the fan when they split up. We had been raised to expect to be listened to and to think of ourselves as equal to them but all of a sudden that was not the case at all. They were making unilateral decisions about our family that we couldn’t stop or protest against. If two adults can’t live together anymore, they have to live apart, it was a horrible wake up but worst of all, now that they weren’t a unit and were at odds (not that they ever bitched about each other to us or anything like that) there was no one to help process the difficult stuff anymore in the adult way we’d been used to because the difficult stuff was them. It’s no good trying to imagine how life would have been different if, but I wish to fuck I had not been such a grown up aware little person when our family imploded.

      I have never doubted my parents love for me but they are only human. It wasn’t actually possible to sustain the wonderful world where they did the best for me and my siblings at all times and we had the perfect childhood experience they wanted for us. But that’s ok, the problem was not the not perfect childhood, it was the artificially high place we fell from.

    • I was also raised with way too much responsibility, way too early, and agree that it sometimes has consequences.
      I still tend to be a hyper vigilant, insecure, stressed out person after many years of inner work and therapy. Though I did figure out a way to channel that tendency into a career where I am (hopefully) doing good in the world!

      Balance is definitely the key. Even though he is still a toddler, I would like to raise my son with a sense of empowerment and responsibility while at the same time making sure he feels safe and parented.

    • It seems like the important distinction here is between the words “small human” vs “small adult”. Children can be a small person with total personality and opinions and beliefs and whatever without being ready to bear the responsibility of adulthood, and that’s totally fine and reasonable.

  5. This is great, and it really resonates. When I was a kid, I knew if I had an opinion on something my parents would hear me out. My thoughts and feelings mattered. I had a vote, if I wanted to use it. Not to say that old-school parents were completely uncaring about their childrens’ thoughts and feelings, but it was more a matter of “I am marrying this person and we will be a family. Full stop.” as opposed to “Your dad and I want to get married, how do you feel about that?”

  6. This is a great article! I too was raised as a small person. I do think this more common (and maybe easier) with only children, but I have friends who were raised this way too who have many siblings.

    One of the greatest compliments I (and my parents) received about my upbringing was when a friend in college didn’t believe I was an only child. He asked why I never talked about my siblings, and when I said I didn’t have any he was in shock. I was too mature, too well-adjusted, and not a spoiled brat to be an only child.

    I am grateful for how I was raised. I loved the honesty that my parents treated me with. While they sheilded and protected me from adult drama, they didn’t hide things either. During hard times if I asked to go do something with friends that required money (ie movies) they would be honest as to why I couldn’t go. They were also kind about it. It was honestly explained that we just couldn’t right then. My Dad was particularly good about coming up with alternatives for free activities. This was just one example of discussions in our household. But it made me respect my parents a lot more for telling me the hard truths, rather than just saying no and hiding behind “being an adult”.

    Thanks for writing this!

    • I’d just like to say that the stereotype of an only child being spoiled and not well-adjusted is total crapola. There are lots of kids with siblings who are spoiled and annoying! In fact I think it has nothing to do with the number of kids you have and more to do with your parenting skills and your luck with gene roulette.

  7. I think it needs to be in balance. My daughter is almost three, and while there are times when I hope to treat her as a small person, I also intend to emphasize and honour the fact that she is a child. Her brain and her body are still developing, so I want to be cautious about my expectations for her behaviour, opinions, and actions. I will listen to her, and respect her, and raise her to be independent and responsible, but at the same time I need to treat her as a child. Her childhood is important, and fleeting. Her personhood will develop throughout the course of her life.

  8. This is beautiful, thank you for sharing.

    My mother had a similar perspective raising me: she’s told me several times that when I was really little, her friends or even just people in the grocery store would compliment her with “your baby is so obedient!” She thought that was weird because it wasn’t like she had me in her grip, “obeying” her at every turn; we were just hanging out together, mom and kid. I think she had a lot of respect for me as a person, even as she was raising me, which is something you don’t always see in parents.

  9. I agree, that we need to treat our children with the respect that we expect them to use with us. We have to trust them enough to allow them learn from mistakes, and gain responsibility for themselves.

    However, now that I have two kids, I also realize that how you parent also REALLY depends on your child’s personality. My kids are like oil and water in terms of their personalities. They require completely different parenting techniques and their behaviour is as much related to their personalities as to my parenting. Though they both embody our core family values.

  10. I think that children shouldn’t be “babied” or talked down to, but I also think that people need to remember they’re still children. Childhood goes SO fast, and as someone who went through puberty while I was still in single digits, I was treated like an adult way earlier than my adult self would have liked.

  11. Thanks for sharing. Your mother puts into words more or less exactly how I feel. I’m currently 6 months pregnant and find it very difficult to explain that I don’t want this child because it will be ‘mine’ or ‘because I want one’. I’ve always felt that those expressions convey a certain amount of selfishness and what your mother said almost perfectly sums up how I feel. I agree that children shouldn’t be treated as babies, how on earth are they meant to make the transition to adulthood if they have never been taught how to respect or been respected themselves?

  12. I was treated as a child, but my decisions about my own life were respected. I didn’t want to skip kindergarten, so I didn’t. I didn’t want to do my homework, so I had bad grades, but my parents never tried to intervene. When I was 14 my Sunday School teacher said something was optional, and then got really mad when 2 of us didn’t do it. When I refused to do it, he tried to tell on me to my mom, I think expecting her to take his side. Well, I had already explained the situation, and she simply told him that his problem was with me, not her, and that he needed to work it out with me. That was the first time I realized that she trusted me to handle myself properly. I liked that feeling, that she wasn’t going to double punish me for my behavior, and she didn’t. She trusted me to take responsibility for my own decisions, even if I wasn’t given say in decisions for the household. Through high school if a teacher or a counselor had a problem with me, if they informed my mother, she never made it known to me. My behavior stood as my own, and any consequences came from the person who had a problem with it.

  13. Loved the article, Mia. I know you know I admire the relationship you have with your parents and how they’ve raised you as far as their unfailing respect for you and your identity. They’ve regularly given you a space to create your own voice and opinions, rather than funnel their own opinions into you and expect you to basically be a mini soundboard for their values. Your parents are strong (even your dad, in his silent and observational way) and they have raised a strong, honest, kind, amazing woman that I am honored to call my girlfriend. I’m proud of you, babe. Love you 🙂

  14. That last part is the very first good reason to want kids. Damnit, now I have to talk to my bf about wanting kids after all…
    (I was never much opposed to having kids, but we both didn’t have an urge to want them. So if he really wanted to I would have been okay with it too.)

  15. My parents also raised all three of us as “small people,” especially with respect to topics that are typically considered taboo. We never had to have ‘the talk’ because all of us knew about sex because it wasn’t a topic that was off limits. Anytime we had a question, it was answered honestly. When a coworker was pregnant, she began freaking out about the prospect of her unborn son getting old enough to ask about sex. I told her to just answer his questions as posed (don’t go into more detail than asked for, if they want to know more they’ll pursue it) and don’t make it weird. When each of us went through the “why?” phase, my father would explain to the best of his ability the answer to that question. And when he didn’t know something, we went to the encyclopedias. If someone much older than you was incorrect about something (especially word usage) it was your responsibility to correct them, which infuriated my grandmother. To the people concerned that children treated as small people won’t have a childhood, we were all just allowed to grow at our own rate. My brother at age 5 was a lot ‘younger’ than I was at age 5, and our parents just let us do our own thing at our own pace but never ‘babied’ us.

  16. Love this! But one, possibly odd question for the OP: do you remember why you asked them to wait until you were in third grade? I’m just so terribly curious! It just struck me as oddly specific and I can’t help but wonder what your reasoning was, if any.

    I can’t stand it when people act like kids aren’t fully capable of the full gamut of human emotion and personality just because they don’t have the vocabulary to express it. Sometimes, it’s simply a lack of communication skills. My parents did at least some of this in that they believed that, when I asked a question, I deserved a true, factually accurate answer in terms I could understand. So I had a lot of medically-specific knowledge about reproduction and human body function at a very young age. Which is kind of funny, because when I asked where babies came from, my parents couldn’t figure out how to explain it to a 3yo so that it was both true and comprehensible, so they found a video specifically designed to do just that! (We still have a copy of the VHS, in fact. It’s called “Where Did I Come From?”)

  17. The dynamic in my mom+3 boys house totally changed when I started asking myself how *I* would want someone to treat me when I made mistakes or acted awful. I quit lecturing, because I realized that so much of it was just stating the obvious, and my kids already knew they screwed up. It was my job to be there to help them figure out how to fix it. I don’t think that treating them as “little people” is the same thing as treating them as adults or skipping over their childhoods. To me, it just means treating them as humans with emotions. We all have feelings, and helping my kiddos learn to identify and navigate theirs was one of my most difficult challenges. Exhausting, but way worth it in the end. Their teen years have been pretty cool.

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