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Rehumanizing Children

by Lauren Pope

Last month, a 4th-grade classroom became the scene of unspeakable carnage. A teenager, not much older than the victims, but, crucially, old enough to buy a semi-automatic rifle, walked through an unlocked door into Robb Elementary School and started shooting.

The children had practiced what to do in such a situation. They hid. They called 911. They watched their teachers and peers be shot one after another. They called 911 again. And again. The police were right outside the door, but they chose not to intervene until it was too late for 19 children and their 2 teachers.

Earlier in May, another 18-year-old man with another legally purchased rifle drove hours out of his way to a grocery store in a majority Black neighborhood where he proceeded to kill 10 innocent people who were simply trying to buy food for their families.

More locally to me in Louisiana, we have teenage boys shooting and killing each other almost every day and teenage girls killing themselves nearly as frequently. A 4-year-old child was recently killed while asleep in his bed. A stray bullet from a senseless shootout at the house next door found its way through his window.

But it’s not just gun violence. Children have spent the entire pandemic being told how “resilient” they are as their schools shuttered and they lost contact with their extended families. Worse still, as of early 2021, about 1.5 million children worldwide had lost a primary or secondary caregiver to Covid-19.

There has been a huge increase in mental health emergency room visits at children’s hospitals. Teachers report a large uptick in violence in schools. Students are getting into more fights and even assaulting their teachers. Meanwhile, there has been an increase in students reporting self-harm and suicidality.

Our children are in crisis. We can not undo the trauma of the last few years, but we can make an active choice to rehumanize the youngest among us. Here are a few easy ways to accomplish that goal.

Rehumanize your language towards children.

I’m often shocked to hear people say incredibly hateful things about children in front of children. It has become common to hear someone bemoaning how much they “hate children” or find them endlessly annoying. Slurs directed at children are frequently heard in online circles, especially in left-leaning spaces that are ordinarily careful to avoid offensive terms directed towards marginalized communities. Why are children, both born and unborn, considered an acceptable target of this kind of abuse?

Considering the fact that it is still legal in most jurisdictions to hit children in the guise of discipline (even in schools!), this casual bigotry becomes even more galling. And this type of speech is often directed explicitly at the children themselves. The first step then in rehumanizing children is to speak to and of them with kindness, and of course, it goes without saying to never react to them with violence of your own.

Instead of: “I hate kids!” try “I’m not a very maternal/paternal person.”

Instead of “You are driving me crazy!” try “I need to take a moment to regulate myself.”

Instead of “Crotchdropping” try…literally anything else. Can we please retire this forever? Thanks.

Listen to children.

As discussed previously in this article, children have been through a lot recently and some of them are dangling precariously close to the edge of disaster. One of the best ways that we can rehumanize children is to listen to them. Feeling like they’re shouting into a void eventually results in children who stop trying to communicate altogether.

Listen to children if they come to you with their heavy burdens and light joys. Do you care about the storyline intricacies of Owl House? Maybe not, but trying to be engaged with a child who is sharing them with you keeps the door open when they come to you with more substantial things, like their own relationship troubles or fears. The presence of an open and engaged adult who cares deeply about the child has been shown to be one of the most important markers of their future mental health.

And what if a child in your life is dealing with something bigger than you can really support on your own? Help them find a trusted counselor or therapist to help. Young people are dealing with so many things that we adults never had to deal with. Sometimes listening well to a child means finding them another supportive ear.

Celebrate their triumphs, and offer comfort for their failures.

This last one is coming straight from my own 9-year-old. I asked her what things adults could do to help kids like her feel like we see them as people, and the last thing she said was “act like they really care when we accomplish something and know that we’re really sad when we fail.”