Possession is 9 tenths

This afternoon I heard someone on the radio answering the question “what is your most prized possession?” His answer? “My two kids.”

The thing that really bothers me is that no-one questioned it. There was a lot of “aw, that’s so sweet”, and talk of how wonderful his kids are, which is all very nice, but where was the outrage? Kids as possessions? Things that we own? From that attitude flow all kinds of ideas, none of them good.

Before you say “it’s just a figure of speech”, stop and think for a moment. Words have power. Psychologists have long known that “self talk” (the things you say to yourself in the privacy of your own head) is self-reinforcing – ie the more you talk yourself down (“I’m so dumb”), the truer it becomes. Psychologists will, among other things, teach you to change your self talk in order to become a happier, more positive person. Words have an incredibly potent impact on the way we see the world. We make jokes about political correctness, but the truth is that constantly talking about a person or a group in a demeaning way affects the way you see them. Change the language, change the world – albeit slowly.

There is a fundamental disconnect between seeing kids as possessions – property, over which we have ultimate power and control – and seeing them as human beings, with all the same human rights, and indeed responsibilities, as adults. We are naturally possessive of our kids – “that’s my girl” – but that is a two way relationship. “That’s my dad” has the same force, the same possessiveness. But to take it one step further, into ownership, takes away the right of self-determination. It deprives kids of their basic human rights.

If I did a survey and asked a random selection of passers by if slavery was ever acceptable, my guess is that most of them would answer with an emphatic “No!” Yet a slave, according to dictionary.com, is “a person who is the property of and wholly subject to another”. People as property, rather than children as people.

I am a firm believer in self-determination. I believe that even newborn babies know when they are hungry, tired, or in need of a cuddle. A friend recently marveled how his son was “playing” with his mum’s breast while feeding, and when he finished feeding, they saw that his kneading of the breast actually made milk spurt out. It may have looked as though he was playing, but that tiny baby knew what he was doing. We can learn a lot from our children.

Yet much of the parenting advice we hear is about imposing things on children, right from the word go. From routines like “feed, play, sleep” where the emphasis is on not letting babies fall asleep while feeding, to “controlled crying”, where we treat their pleas for comfort as manipulation. It was only days after the birth of my first child that I was told “She’ll play you, you know. Wrap you around her little finger.”

Sure, there are some things that are not negotiable. Human rights come as a package with responsibilities. Respect for the human rights (and possessions) of anyone carries with it the assumption that the rights (and possessions) of others will be respected in turn. And there will always be rules, like don’t run onto the road. There is a balance to be struck, and it’s not practical to offer infinite choices all the time. But when we let our kids choose their own clothes, decide what they want for breakfast, and have a voice in important decisions that affect them, we affirm their human rights, and help them grow into mature adults who will respect the rights of others.

When we treat kids as possessions, we reduce them, at best, to slaves. And those who have grown up in slavery often want slaves of their own.

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