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Big feelings matter, even when felt by small people

By Talia Belowich


Thanks to babysitting and my job as an assistant teacher, I am one of few college students who spend regular quality time with children. My social interactions with one-through-nine-year-olds often take up more of my time than social plans with my peers, and I spend more time reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar on weekdays than I do my murder mystery novels. Spending so much time with children has prompted me to be a lone advocate for children, a population with big feelings and even bigger hearts who tend to face unfortunately harsh treatment by figures of authority.


Last semester, I took a class for my biopsychology major called Infant Behavior. In lecture, we learned that, like adults, children have strong emotions. However, unlike adults, children have far less knowledge and practice on how to regulate their strong emotions. The intellectual restrictions of a limited vocabulary and knowledge bank can be frustrating, as children cannot properly articulate their emotions and often require help understanding big feelings and processing experiences. 


Belittling children’s experiences and feelings is all too common, and something I experienced first hand in my childhood by adults who hardly knew me. Phrases like “when real life starts…” are not only belittling but ridiculous because who’s to say adulthood is a more valid form of life than childhood? If life is measured by hardship, as many bitter adults like to declare, than national statistics on child abuse suggest children as a population face plenty of it. Meanwhile, phrases like “you’re too young to be tired” or “you’re too young to be in love” are not only harmful, but scientifically inaccurate. Children can feel just as tired as adults can and experience feelings of infatuation and desire. 


Children are capable of so much more than we give them credit for, not just emotionally but intellectually as well. Their learning looks different from ours, but learning a language, adjusting to an entirely new environment and body, and experiencing emotions for the very first time is not easy work. 


Unfortunately, along with their emotions and developmental accomplishments being belittled, many children are subject to unfair expectations and demands. Some of these include eating all the food on their plate, whether they like it or not, and sharing their favorite toys with whatever other wandering child comes into view. Adults would never be expected to share their phone with the person sitting next to them on the bus because “sharing is caring,” or eat an entire plate of a food item they don’t enjoy. So why should children be subjected to those same demands? 


Not only are the demands unfair, but the punishments handed out to children for not completing them are more harmful than beneficial. The brain responds to “time outs” the same way it responds to other forms of isolation, meaning it can promote emotional dysregulation and retraumatize children who have suffered from abuse. Putting someone in further isolation when they are acting out is ineffective in the same way letting a baby “cry it out” is ineffective; although you may point that this is using positive reinforcement on a negative behavior, isolation punishment does more harm than good. Letting a baby “cry it out” demolishes the one effective method of communication that babies are capable of, and promotes long periods of stress and emotional dysregulation that can affect the mental state of the child long-term


Furthermore, when discussing the treatment of children, education is an essential aspect to cover. The U.S. school system discourages originality. Children are shuttled around the hallways like cattle, their bowel movements are monitored with hall passes, and the work they do is all uniform. The imagination and creativity of students in grades K-12 is on the decline, according to an article by Forbes. Even TEDX has acknowledged the problem in U.S. education, when Sir Ken Robinson argued that children are “educated out of creativity.” Poor education has led to the destruction of the individuality of youth. 


College students (most of whom don’t regularly interact with children) may feel removed or incapable of influencing the way in which parents and educators view and treat children. However, we can start to recognize that, due to their helpless nature, children should be a protected group and be advocated for. Further, should any of us become parents, it’s important to be mindful of the power of our words, punishments, and demands, as they may be more harmful than they appear. 


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