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“Przekrój” Magazine brings to the English reader some of the best journalism from across Central and Eastern Europe, in such fields as culture, society, ecology and literature. Stand aside from the haste and fierceness of everyday news and join us now!

A psychologist reflects on how our adult society built on hierarchies is letting down children.
2019-06-17 10:00:00
Agnieszka Stein, translated by Nathaniel Espino

Children Are People Too. Theoretically

Children Are People Too. Theoretically

A child is the property of adults. This fundamental belief doesn’t make it easy to treat children as subjects, rather than objects.

Read in 4 minutes

We live in a culture that doesn’t support caring for children’s interests, or for relationships of free will among people in general. I’m in a different situation from most people who recently watched the Sekielski brothers’ film about paedophilia in the Roman Catholic Church, or the one about Michael Jackson and his victims. I’ve been encountering such stories for a long time: I’ve worked with children and parents for years; I was a psychologist in an orphanage and in a centre for domestic violence victims. I get the impression that we’re suddenly discovering (to the recent films I would also add the #MeToo campaign) that other people have the same rights as we do to determine their own actions. The same rights to their own opinion and to enforcing their own boundaries. Children too.

Treating others as subjects is difficult in our culture, because it’s a culture built on hierarchies. If you’re higher in the hierarchy you’re right, you have more rights and you have more freedom of action. Theoretically, we repeat that all people are equal, but in practice it varies a lot. Children are usually low in this hierarchy.

A child is the property of adults. This fundamental belief doesn’t make it easy to treat them as subjects. We say: “When you’re 18, you’ll be able to decide for yourself, but for now I’m deciding.” This is connected with another belief: that adults know better what’s good for children. Even when it comes to their bodies.

The belief is also widespread that if a child does something that inconveniences us or that we don’t like, our stress and annoyance will help us teach them to behave better, and we have the right to do so. Parents are often convinced that children need to learn to tell good from bad, and paradoxically this often leads to them doing to the child what they said is bad and isn’t allowed. They yell at children to teach them not to yell. They grab them to teach them not to hit others. They use violence to teach them not to use violence. Meanwhile, you can’t use aggression and violence to teach a child to care for others. That only teaches them aggression and violence; that the strong win.

Another belief is that children are responsible in their relationships with adults. For example, we say: “Look, you made me angry.” In this way, we give the child control over our emotions. We also send a signal: if things are tough for me, they’re tough for you, so you have to take care of me. Because my difficulty is more important. That’s a reversal of roles. We put the child in the role of the parent, who’s supposed to take care of adults.

All of these beliefs are almost invisible for us. And they work most strongly when we don’t see them. What can we do to make ourselves see them? I have the feeling that recently there have been more and more situations that give us this opportunity. People are showing up and beginning to say loudly and openly that something doesn’t work for them. First they’re considered disturbers of the social order, and later, slowly but surely, their perceptions steal into the general consciousness. I have the impression that this can be seen very clearly in relation to women.

Our actions follow our beliefs. If we believe that human nature is damaged, we fix it. But if we believe that everything’s okay with it, we try not to ruin it. Scientific knowledge now gives us quite a bit of clarity, that this second approach – not to ruin things – delivers better effects. This can be seen perfectly in the example of motivation. If we assume that somebody has an internal motivation, we support it, and there’s more and more of it. And when we assume that somebody doesn’t have it, then we start to act externally on them, and their internal motivation really does spiral downward. The education system today is founded on the assumption that children don’t want to learn. That you have to force them. And the more you force them, the less they want to learn.

Our beliefs aren’t formed on the basis of real experience. Instead, we develop them and then try to seek elements of reality that confirm them. Psychology has described a phenomenon known as the Pygmalion effect. If a teacher is given one class and told that they’re exceptionally talented children, and another described as children with problems, then after a certain time, even though the children were selected for both groups at random, the ones from the first have ever better results, while those of the other group get worse and worse.

Stories of abuse and crime against children frighten and shock us, but at the same time they help us not to think about what we’re doing ourselves. It’s easier to think about an evil that’s far away and that does all these terrible things. Concentrating on the figure of the evil other gives adults a feeling of security. It’s harder to think about how the majority of abuse comes from people who the child knows very well. That the majority happens in the family. It’s easier to think about very serious abuses than about everyday situations that involve the violation of boundaries. Meanwhile, these small abuses and violations of boundaries open the door to the big ones – in many ways.


Translated by Nathaniel Espino

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Agnieszka Stein

Agnieszka Stein

is a psychologist, who since 1999 has been helping children and adults to deal with difficult situations. She believes that a mutual relationship of respect between parents and children is the basic factor in successfully raising them. She’s the mum of a wonderful teenager.