Saturday, 16 July 2011

The Helpless Child...

The "helpless" child.  It is something we hear quite often - especially in Western society, and more often than not in the media in all its *cough* glorious incarnations.  I guess one could argue (with legal tenacity, no doubt) that the phrase itself holds true.  Yes, there are some occasions in which children may find themselves without help (ooo, do you see what I did there?).  Deprived of help.  Denied help.  Made to feel helpless.

It is an easy trap to fall into.  We first see our newborns - these tiny, pink and outraged bundles of flailing limbs and bewildered expressions and we say, "Awwww, so helpless!  So tiny!  So vulnerable!"  And these are things we are no doubt meant to feel, as part of the bonding process with out infants.  It's the part of our brain - our "over-protective mummy" button - that turns us into snarling lions if anyone or anything dares to threaten our offspring.

And yet, newborns are incredibly strong.  Tenacious like we could never dream to be.  Stubborn, persistent and fiercely commited to living life in a way we have long-since taken for granted.  Just think how much your newborn experienced in that first hour outside your safe and nurturing that first week, that first month!  Within seconds of birth, the overwhelming majority of babies have the drive to breathe.  Within minutes, to suckle.  Experiments have shown that a newborn baby can find its way, completely unassisted, to its mother's breast and attach itself for that first, bonding feed.  Helpless?  In what sense??

By one year of age, most children can at the very least stagger, if not toddle.  Many can run.  They can climb.  They can say a few words, and understand many, many more.  They can play.  They can recognise images, sounds, shapes, even words on a page.  They have begun to form opinions.  Their cognitive skills are already more advanced than most other adult animals on the planet.  Helpless?  In what sense??

Niamh is nearly two.  It's her birthday next week, in fact.  What a joy - what a privilege it has been to watch her learn and grow these past nearly two years.  And in all that time, I have never once seen her as helpless any more than she sees herself as helpless.  That doesn't mean she doesn't need my help.  It's something else entirely.  It takes great understanding and awareness of self to be able to ask for help, or to recognise that help is required in a given situation.  When she says, "Mama, I need help with this, please," my first thought is not panic, "Oh no!  She can't manage on her own!  Poor, ignorant child!!"  Nor do I feel pity.  "Ohhh, how terrible.  She hasn't learned how to do that yet."  Never, ever have I felt superiority.  "Awwwww, how sweet and cute!  She doesn't know how to do that yet.  Isn't she adorable?"  Nor shame, "Oh no!  My child can't do that yet!  But all her friends can!"

I feel joy.  She trusts me.  She knows she can always ask me for help without fear of any of the above kinds of judgement.  And better yet, she trusts herself enough to ask.  She feels no shame.  She feels connection - I am her guide, and she knows it.  It is a humbling, amazing experience, and more than a little daunting, when I think about it!

So, at nearly two years of age, what can Niamh do?  Here is just the tip of a very large iceberg.

She can grind eggs shells to feed to the chickens:

She can help change a light globe (she can tell you, step by step, what is required, even if she can't reach the light herself):
She can feed the dogs:

She can make her own decisions (she chose to get wet...and eat a a torrential downpour.  She had a blast, by the way.  So did I!):

She can scoop, pour and measure:

 She can crack eggs into a bowl and stir them:

 She can help install skirting boards (yes, she really did hammer by herself, and yes, she really did use the power tools - under supervision, but she still did it herself):

I could go on.  But my point, I hope, is self-evident.  No, she might not be able to vote, drive a car or converse freely on the topic of carbon tax, but is she helpless?  Not by a long shot!

The sooner this society and its inhabitants stop thinking of children as lesser beings, the better.  Children are not blank slates, requiring our help to mould them into decent or even good human beings.  They are born human, and they are born worthy of respect.  Yes, they might lack our experience of years, but they think, they feel, they hope, they desire.  They feel joy and shame.  They feel anger and frustration...and when they do, it is not our place to judge them for it...we who feel these same things every day, and who would be mortified to be put in our place by someone claiming to be our superior for daring to have a whinge about it.

Hmm.  You know what?  This has turned into another rant when I promised you more Colour Month.  Many apologies.  Some things, however, I think are worth saying rather than letting them fester on the tip of your tongue.

And so I will close by dedicating this post to "Lizzie" - the 11 year old girl who "dared" to weigh into the carbon tax debate on ABC local radio...and who subsequently bore the brunt of adult derision with courage, grace and maturity far beyond that of those who belittled her.

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