My childhood was riddled with a million variations of the phrase “Children should be seen and not heard.” By elementary school I all but whispered my questions, never sure which were appropriate to ask, typically being told to “Speak up!” before told to quiet down. The age-old saying of children being seen and not heard originates in England, dating back to the 15th century. Found in a centuries-old collection of homilies written by a religious man named John Mirk around the year 1450, the phrase originally served as a reminder to young women, specifically, to keep quiet. My guess is that it didn’t take long for England’s parents to realize little boys were equally as inquisitive and, over time, the phrase became a catchall for all young voices, regardless of gender. Through the years, the phrase remained a barometer for the well-behaved.
I can recall being compared to the talkative children as a child, I was immediately labeled the more respectful, well-mannered child when truthfully I was just more afraid of the ramifications of using my voice. I had questions, tons of them, but in my experience, I’d have an easier time getting alcohol than I would answers. And so I, like many children, sought answers elsewhere. Big mistake.
What I didn’t know was that I was hurling myself towards a whirlwind of bad decisions by seeking unsubstantiated sources on life’s complex subjects. My middle school friends knew just as little as I did, and the 90’s internet wasn’t the respected resource we know and love today. I didn’t stop asking questions, I just started looking in the wrong places to get answers. And despite believing that they were shielding me from things I was too young to comprehend, my parents were actually denying me the comfort of navigating uncomfortable spaces with the most influential people in my life, them. Whether we acknowledge it or not, children are exposed to an exorbitant amount of mature subject matter on a regular basis. Whether it be sex, racism, poverty, violence or the like, children not only have access to this type of content, this content has access to children.
My parents did the best they could with what they knew, but had the known better, they would’ve encouraged their children not only to ask questions, but to do so proudly and persistently at that. Curiosity is a covering for children as they explore the world around them, it encourages cognitive development and increases feelings of confidence and safety. As the world grows increasingly unsafe for children it’s important that parents reinforce that covering with knowledge and information in the golden age of “fake news.” Children use questions to find our how their world’s work, this communication fosters critical thinking and helps to solidify the relationship between guardian and child. But when children turn to unreliable or unsafe sources to form these relationships, they become vulnerable to unsound advice, unnecessary or unhealthy experiences, and inaccurate information. Half of all teens in the US reported feeling unsafe talking to their parents about sex but 60% of teens admit to having sex before their high school graduation. This means our children are having these conversations, they’re just not having them with us.
Black children are owed explanations in comfortable spaces without judgement. Unfortunately, we’re unable to protect our children from the realities of their Blackness in this country, so that means we have to allow curiosity if for no other reason than that it helps them to gain a sense of control over their life at a young age. Knowledge of the world is built one understanding at a time and we carry the building blocks. Too many Black children find themselves trying to understand in adulthood a world they’ve been experiencing since childhood. But children deserve to fully grasp the world that is ahead of them before they find themselves in it. Black children don’t always have to learn their lessons the hard way and, if left up to them, they wouldn’t have to. We can create a culture that encourages our children to communicate and in turn, supports them when they do.