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  • Anna Brix Thomsen

Why Children Act Differently Around Adults: DAY 61

Something that I’ve noticed in my work as a teacher is how children change their behavior as soon as an adult steps into the room. This change in behavior is most evident when the children are young, around the ages of five and decreases and become less evident the older the children are, with teenagers seeming almost ‘the same’ whether they are with an adult or not. Of course having been a teenager myself (as have we all) I know that this is not true – or at least for me it was not true. But what I see is that, as we grow up wet get more skilled in the art of deception and subtly changing from one environment to another making sure that no one sees this change because that would obviously expose the fact that we do in fact deceive.

So what is it that happens as children go from being expressive toddlers who freely move above to becoming deceptive children and teenagers acting and expressing themselves completely different according to whether they are in a room with adults or not?

Let me share some examples to show what I am talking about:

A particular very evident example happened when I walked in on two boys playing a naked game or exploring their naked bodies together. These were six-year-olds. They immediately stopped what they were doing, not looking ashamed or anything like that, but instantly having the instinct to hide themselves. This is quite an obvious example because it involves nudity, which in many cultures is tabooed. But it also happens in more public situations where kids are simply playing with one another and as soon as I as an adult walks by, they change their behavior and even the way they speak and move. Something interesting is also that this isn’t contingent upon me having a relationship with them of for example being their teacher. It happens as often with children whom I’ve never met and who has never met me. From what I have seen, it therefore appears to me as though children classify adults in general into a specific category that is distinctly different from them as children. There is not anything strange in this, I mean as adults we also tend to group children together in a plethora of ‘little people’. I also remember it from myself as a child.

Adults were these big people who I saw as restrictive and most often as those who would tell me what not to do. Of course there were some adults, who were not like that – but especially in a school environment, that is how I saw adults.

Now for this blog-post I actually did some research to see if I could find any psychological theories on this topic or some actual scientific research and while they might exist while and there might even be a term for this ‘behavioral adjustment’ – a simple Google search turned up nothing about this topic. I found that a little surprising because as a teacher, this is something that I have noticed as being rather prominent and somewhat problematic or even symptomatic.

Why do children change behavior around adults?

When we as children are young, especially in school, but for many also at home, we tend to develop a perception of adults as ‘those big people that yell and tell me what not to do’. Few adults are able to relay messages with important information to children about what not to do in ways that are supportive rather than demeaning or angry. Because obviously it is our responsibility as adults to make sure that children are safe from harm, which sometimes include restricting them in situations where they might not understand the consequences of what it is they are doing. However – what I have found is that we as adults have used this logical argument as an excuse, because in many instances it is in no way necessary to yell at a child and it is certainly never necessary to demean them because they don’t understand the world the same way we do.

I remember how I hid from adults when I had done ‘bad’ things as a child. And this is not an effective relationship to have with one another. Because children fearing the punishment and judgment of adults is not going to make them correct themselves any faster or any more effective. On the contrary, they’re simply going to perfect the art of deception – and learn to present one face to adults and another to their peers.

When I was first studying to become a preschool teacher, I had two internships in two different childcare facilities. The first one was a rather ‘normal’ one where the teachers would yell at the kids from time to time. When I here say ‘yell at’ I’m talking about rather basic stuff like: “Stop fighting!” or “Be Quiet!” or “Why did you do that to him?” so as a preschool teacher, this was one of the first ‘cultures of child rearing’ that I was introduced to and it was expected of me to integrate into the workforce and act in the same way. Now – when I got to my internship in the other preschool, one of the first things they said to me was that they had a policy and a principle about not yelling at the children. They even explained how it was shown by psychologists that screaming and yelling doesn’t help and that there are other ways to ‘rear’ children.

So over the course of the six months where I was there, I learned and I saw alternative ways to handling conflicts. For example: If two children were in a fight about a piece of toy for example, we would as adults walk up to them, and instead of making assumptions about who’s doing what to who, we would ask them, one at a time to explain what had happened. Then we would ask THEM how to solve the conflict and as such rather stands as mediators than as judges of the situation, often without having witnessed what actually happened. A lot of times, what leads to conflicts is also the working conditions that we as children has, especially when it comes to noise levels and many children in the classroom. So in this preschool they for example also had a rule that noisy games took place outside, so whenever some children would play very loudly we’d simply ask them to take their game outside.

What was most remarkable about this preschool in the context of the topic of children acting differently around adults is that the children would very openly express themselves, also in situations of vulnerability. They would for example be much more likely to admit if they were the one having done something than what I have seen from children in other preschools.

So what I’m getting at here is that we as adults are using fear, threats, punishment and anger to raise our children and teach them about how to act safely and with common sense in the world. And it is not working. Because although they might learn to ‘behave’ – which of course they do to some degree, they also learn to scheme and deceive and hide their mistakes and misdoings.

Many parents do not understand why their children won’t share themselves, but this is exactly the reason why. And what happens is that all of these points that we as children hide from adults, we never correct and we grow up, in many ways broken and we stay broken – because we don’t ever get to the point of understanding why we acted the way we did, nor to correct our mistakes. And in the world of the adults we see the consequences of this way of living, because how much do we not hide from each other and even from ourselves? How many acts of abuse do we not commit that goes unnoticed?

The fact that children act differently around adults is indicative of a misalignment, not only in the way we believe that we must raise children, but also in who we are as adults and the tacit agreement we’ve decided to live with each other, where it is accepted to do unacceptable acts as long as one does not get caught. You must say: ‘thank you’ and ‘sorry’ but you don’t have to mean it.

Children act differently around adults because we teach them to not be themselves, to not express themselves openly – that if they do express themselves openly they might risk getting yelled at or be ridiculed. We teach them that it’s dangerous to make mistakes – even innocent mistakes caused by us not yet understanding the workings of their physical bodies. We teach them that they must hide their mistakes from us, to lie, to deceive and we teach them that adults cannot be trusted with painful secrets.

This point is another reason why it is so absolutely imperative that we change the current school system and why having so many children in each class is an absolute detriment to our children’s education and well being. Obviously it is not an optimal environment for learning, nor for teachers or for students. And it is no wonder that teachers get frustrated or that parents get frustrated, but it is no excuse to continue using fear and intimidation to teach children about the way the world works. Because what we’re teaching them is what the world becomes: a place of fear, abuse and deceit where we seldom get to the point of correcting our mistakes. 

I recommend reading the following blogs:

Natural Learning Abilities blog series – a MUST READ! 

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