Don’t Speak Until You Are Spoken To

I am eight.  Adults live in a separate world from me.  I look up to them and I fear them. I do not speak to a group of adults unless someone has spoken to me first. I stand next to my mother who is sitting at the table with my Aunts and Uncles and I wait for her to acknowledge me.  I don’t interrupt. Ever.

This is just simple good manners. Or is it?

As a child, I was always so nervous and self-conscious around adults, especially adults that were not my parents.  At ten, eleven, and twelve- I was always amazed by other children who could have what I considered to be “real conversations” with adults.  And I was blown away by the kids that could joke around with them.  They seemed to feel totally relaxed and comfortable in their skin.  While I was always afraid of doing something wrong.

“Don’t speak until you are spoken to,” is an old school expression that reflects an authoritarian style of parenting. “Children should be seen and not heard,” is its quick follow up.  If you were a child in the Seventies or earlier and you had traditional parents you probably heard these expressions in the background- over and over and over.

Erica, the creator of this week’s writing challenge “Golden Years” at The Daily Post wrote about the age gap people often feel in their heads.  The common disconnect between how old you are and how old you feel. For years, Erica told people she was sixteen because that was how she FELT inside.   I can relate to this.  I think most people can. Sometimes if I sit down with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a glass of milk or a grilled cheese and bowl of tomato soup- I will actually feel five inside. Five.

For most of my (childless) thirties I felt and acted like I was in my twenties. So- when does one even leave childhood and become an “adult”? At eighteen?  Just like a small part of me is still a little bit in love with every man I ever loved.  Some of us- no matter how vast our life experience- will always feel a little bit like a child inside.   Our past is a part of us.

The problem with the expressions, “don’t speak until you are spoken to” and “children should be seen and not heard” is that they imply that the small child is not yet a whole person.  Therefore, they must wait for their “real life” to begin.  What they wish to express, what they feel is not a priority.  One day they too will be adults and then they can assert themselves, then they can call out for attention, interject or make some noise.  But for now, while they are little- they must defer. They must wait.

If what Peggy O’Mara says is true, that “the way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice” then what happens to the young adult who has internalized the belief that she is not yet whole (and therefore not worthy of demanding attention) when she is at her first professional job? How does she interact with her colleagues and bosses- if she has a belittled sense of what it means to be a young person?

There was a period of time in my youth when I remember feeling that what I did- did not matter.  It didn’t “count.”  This is, of course, wrong.  Everything builds on everything else.  Always.

I don’t want to be overly reductive.  I am not one to blame my parent for all of my shortcomings.  Yes, my parents embodied some of the authoritarian parenting styles from their era.  Yes, it probably had its effect on me. However, they also loved me unconditionally- and I knew it.  In a lot of ways, I was one of the lucky ones.  Raising kids is not a question of nature versus nurture.  It is both nature AND nurture.  We never know, for sure, how what we do is going to interact with the unique individual that is each child.

As a parent these questions haunt me: Out of all of the things that we do to and for our children- what is going to stick with them?  What is going to shape them?

I respect my parents desire to have well-mannered children. I have a young daughter and I am all for raising polite children.  I just think HOW we get there matters.  And it matters a lot.  You can unintentionally belittle children with your words.  You can yell. Or you can even beat your children into behaving how you want- but have you really taught them anything but fear?

Adults can teach children how to be courteous of other people’s time- both young and old- without diminishing them in the process.  And they can show them how it feels by respecting their time, as well.  To do so is more nuanced and requires more effort but if the end result is a child who behaves well and also knows his or her full value as a human being- it is well worth it.

 “As adults, we must ask more of our children then they know how to  ask of themselves.  What can we do to foster their openhearted hopefulness, engage their need to collaborate, be an incentive to utilize their natural competency and compassion…. show them ways they can connect, reach out, weave themselves into the web of relationships that is called community.” Dawna Markova


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  1. Posted March 13, 2015 at 2:31 am | Permalink

    I too was brought up in a very restrictive environment of what to do and what not. Au contraire, my wife and I were very careful with our daughter from the time she had barely began to interpret our actions, to treat her as an adult. Two disciplines we followed come to mind, and I would recommend them to all parents.

    1) No matter whoever else happened to be with us, we always paid attention to our daughter when she spoke to us, or otherwise tried to draw our attention. If it meant interrupting another conversation, we did that.
    2) We always treated her as an ADULT! Even when watching a film on the telly, say, we never switched it off, changed channel or got up to leave, if an adult content came up. There was no way we would think of anything as taboo between the three of us. So long as something did not appear vulgar we stayed together with it.

    We never tried to gain ‘respect’ from her, but I cannot think of anyone else who loves us as much as our daughter does. Now grown-up, married to a wonderful person, and living thousands of miles away, she still cannot go to bed without talking to either of us, and must let us know of every small thing happening in her life.

    Thus, we know that she will bring up her children in like manner.

    • Banana
      Posted March 20, 2015 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

      Hi Mikupa, Your experience on this matter is very interesting given that you have an adult child and that you were also raised restrictively-but chose a different approach with your daughter. I am very glad to hear that you still have a close relationship. It is my belief that true respect can not be demanded. One can demand obedience from someone with less power, of course, but true respect is earned through the example of truly respect-worthy behavior. Which it seems that you and your wife exhibited.

  2. Posted April 10, 2015 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    What you said about not being able to speak to adults and being floored by other children who could– that resonated with me. Best to you in your parenting! 🙂

  3. Posted April 17, 2015 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

    I appreciate your reflections here. I have thought a lot about how we speak (to our children, particularly) and offer my own reflections here:
    I didn’t realize the quote about the way we speak to our children came from Peggy O’Mara – so thanks for that bit of info. Thanks for sharing some of your story.

  4. Posted April 22, 2015 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    I relate to this article also. I always listen to children…what they have to say is often more intelligent and interesting than adult comments. 🙂

  5. John
    Posted May 31, 2016 at 6:49 am | Permalink

    “Don’t speak until you are spoken to” and “If you don’t ask you don’t get…”. No wonder we were confused little urchins!!!

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