The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The magic that happens when adults see other people’s kids as three-dimensional humans

Placeholder while article actions load

I teach at a pre-K-8 school, and it’s a big deal when our eighth-graders graduate. Each spring, I have an awards night for the graduating eighth-graders who have participated in at least two plays during their time at the school. It’s a little different from other awards ceremonies. We watch a slide show featuring pictures of each child in each production. The bulk of the evening is devoted to me reading a letter about each student. These letters focus on the unique things that child has done — funny stories, favorite memories, moments where they displayed character. It’s a powerful night. I frequently have to stop several times and regain my composure. I almost always have to pass the tissue box around multiple times to the parents present.

I’ve done this now since 2006, and almost every year I get comments from parents thanking me for seeing who their child is, really, beneath the layers of adolescent awkwardness, moodiness and immaturity.

But not all the emotion is from people hearing about their own kids. A lot comes from parents hearing about other people’s children, kids they didn’t know. Or kids they knew and didn’t like.

Then, inevitably, someone says something like this: “I have to admit I have not always thought very highly of some of these other kids. I didn’t want my child interacting with them. I realize now that there were other sides to these kids, positive things I didn’t see.” Often these statements contain a degree of regret. The parent misjudged, or misunderstood, and wrote the child off.

Dads are happier than moms. Science wants to know why, and so do I.

That’s natural, after all. Often a parent remembers a time when one of their child’s peers was mean or did something hostile or bullying. This tends to be the way the parent views that child from that point on.

Of course, that is the opposite of how most of us want to be treated. We claim the right to be defined by our entire selves, not one moment when we might have been agitated or upset.

Something magical — no, sacred — happens when adults hear details about other people’s children. They move past stereotypes and cliches and begin to see them as humans — complex, complicated, messy humans who have strengths as well as weaknesses, virtues in addition to vices. In other words, they start to see other people’s children with the same full perspective through which they see their own.

In over 30 years of directing and almost 20 of teaching, I cannot remember a child who did not have some redeeming virtue. Sometimes, to be sure, these diamonds were more deeply buried than others. Sometimes it took a great deal more skill and patience to unlock the treasure that existed. But it was always there.

When I could not see it, there was a good chance that the problem was my perspective. My assumptions. My own flaws and weaknesses.

I have learned to extend grace, to offer a space in which I make no judgment. Or at least to hold open the possibility that the story I am seeing will be incomplete, even when a child seems to be aggravating or difficult. Especially when a child seems to be aggravating or difficult.

Children are, by definition, immature. They act impulsively. They make mistakes. They have very little judgment. They certainly have little experience to draw upon. This is why they aren’t allowed to drive or vote. It’s why there are laws about drinking and sexual consent. There are any number of ways we collectively recognize that these are not adults — even if they look grown up.

That’s not to say they should get away with everything. That’s unhealthy for our society and for the child. It is to say instead that no child is just one thing. Surely, if we followed any teen around we could find something for which to scold them. We would almost surely find something for which to praise them as well. One doesn’t negate the other.

Yes, teens speak without thinking. They are prone to exaggerate and act without balance or moderation. They can be reflexively unkind and hostile.

So, however, can adults.

That might give us cause for a bit of humility and lead us to exercise caution in condemning teenagers’ lapses.

The wonderful thing about kids is how quickly they will often patch things up and give another chance to someone who has done something to upset them. As humans go, they are generally quick to extend grace, quick to give the benefit of the doubt, and quick to move on.

Can we say the same about adults?

Ideally, we, the adults, can be mature enough to give grace, space or at least wise, measured reflection. We might resist the urge to serve as a one-person tribunal.

At the very least, we might ask ourselves whether our intervention will hurt or help a child grow into the kind of adult we hope they’ll become. We might consider whether the judgment we are about to deliver would be the same if it were our own child being scrutinized.

Braden Bell is a teacher, writer and director from Nashville. The author of seven novels, he blogs and writes a newsletter with reflections about parenting adolescents. He’s on Twitter @bradenbellcom.

Follow On Parenting on Facebook and join our discussion group here to talk about parenting and work. Sign up here for our weekly newsletter.

More reading:

I’m okay with my teens dropping the occasional f-bomb. Here’s why.

How Virginia’s blackface photos make me again wonder how much to tell my kids

‘It will take off like a wildfire’: The unique dangers of the Washington state measles outbreak