An Inauthentic Childhood

Lately, I have been pondering on how we have created an inauthentic childhood. We tell children to hold an emoji to tell us how they feel. We tell them they have to be friends with every child in the classroom, “We are all friends.” We even describe their feelings for them, I see that you are frustrated.” We constantly limit what they can and cannot do, even when it goes against their instincts and choices. “Tree cookies need to stay in the block area.” “Wear your coat because it is cold outside.” We fill them with fears that stunt their risk-taking when we say to them, “Be careful, you may fall.”  We tell them to sit down and not move when they need to move their bodies. 

​How often, we diagnose natural energy and the need for activity as ADHD? When we can’t fix children’s behavior to meet adult needs, we tell them that they have challenging behaviors. We pathologize their actions instead of understanding that they are just figuring the world. They are not a failure. Children need to know that their authentic self is enough and the adults in their life accept them for who they are. 

Children need to experience a more authentic reality grounded in their knowledge, previous experiences, and cultural values. What I often question is why we adults have to create an alternate reality for children? How do we get back to trusting children and find a way to support their authentic selves? Has our view of children drifted so far from reality that we no longer see who they are? What has created such a level of fear that we need to overprotect children?

Think of the many children that come into your classroom. Each one unique and full of curiosity. They want to learn, they love to explore, and they have many ideas. They also have emotions that range from happiness to anger and fear. They question their feelings, which they may find confusing, and they want someone to guide them and help them maneuver them.  When we authentically respond to children’s emotions by being present, listening, and holding the space for them to experience this BIG emotion, they learn that there is always someone that cares enough to help them get through the moment. This empathy will later translate into the way children support and interact with each other. 

Children want to be trusted. They want to explore and learn about their abilities and capacities. They need to test their limits and see how much they can do and accomplish. They need to trust the adults in their lives, and they expect guidance that supports their identity. They hope to build authentic relationships that lead to honest interactions.

On the one hand, we value sincerity, honesty, and people who are straightforward and have integrity. We consider lack of authenticity to be undesirable and often seen as manipulative. So, why do we create such an inauthentic reality for children? Authenticity requires us to have a clear understanding of who we are and how we behave in the world. When we create inauthentic childhoods, we tell children that the pursuit of truth and integrity is not necessary as long as we follow the expectations set by the adults, even when the expectations are unrealistic. Children also learn that to maintain social harmony, they need to hide their authentic selves, including their emotions. For example, we expect children to conceal their feelings if they are not socially acceptable. “It’s okay, you don’t need to cry,” often followed by a distracting strategy. We tell children to show glee when receiving a gift, even when they do not like it. We ask them to say “I am sorry” even when they don’t even know why they have to feel sorry.

In most cases, the requests to act in specific ways are far from the children’s authentic experiences and feelings. Infants and young children are genuine human beings. They give free rein to their emotional reactions and thoughts. They laugh when happy, and they demonstrate pure joy. They are curious, creative, and motivated to learn. They cry when they are hurt or sad, disengage, get angry and seek help and protection when scared or confused. For survival, children imitate and adapt to meet adult’s demands. Lying becomes the best strategy to get adult approval. Sadly, adults often see children’s natural reactions as annoyance and a problem. Unfortunately, we have created a society where lying, dishonesty, and inauthenticity are accepted. 

How Adult Teach Children to Lie

When children say something that makes adults uncomfortable, they are admonished or told not to say anything. Sometimes they are punished or rejected or ignored for it. Adults tell them to stop saying things about other children and that it is disrespectful to gossip. We sacrifice children’s authenticity and willingness to do the right thing for our comfort.
We send confusing messages.

Children have to maneuver changing standards and rules constantly. One day, it is acceptable to act a certain way, and the next day, the rule changes without notice. In some situations, they have to tell the truth, but they are told not to in others. They are asked to hide the facts that adults don’t want other people to know. In other words, they are instructed to lie and are punished when they don’t, and we tell them that the punishment is for their own good. Way too often, adults don’t take children seriously. When they tell us that they are being abused, they are often not believed. 

Children also learn to lie and be inauthentic because they observe adults lying or minimizing the truth.  oftentimes, adults don’t see lying to children as a big deal. Quite the contrary, it’s often even perceived as amusing or a necessity to protect children. Adults tease children and make up stories for emotional and social comfort, or because it is easier than to talk about the reality of their life. Sometimes children see adults lie to others to get what they want, so they learn to do the same. For example, David hears his mother say that he is only 5 years old to avoid paying the higher price of entering the amusement park. David looks at her confused and says,”Mom, I am 7 years old.” His mom yells at him for contradicting her. David starts crying and states, “I am not a liar.” What a confusing message David just received for a caring adult in his life. 

Children become confused about the value of honesty and integrity. They may develop a distorted sense of reality. They learn to lie and to ignore what is true or at least hide the truth from people. And yet, we want them to be honest and always tell the truth.  Moreover, children learn that they can’t trust the adults in their life. They may think that adults don’t care about them and have to deal with their pain and confusion alone. In some cases, the child even starts doubting what happened. 

Perhaps it is time to look at our authenticity and reflect on how what we do affects children. Do we want to create authentic childhoods that support children’s identities and ways of being in the world, or do we want to continue to create an alternate reality for the sake of compliance? It is time that, as educators, we recreate our image of children, and we start to honor their authentic selves.