Beware the well-behaved child; you never know what they’re hiding.
In his book The Good Enough Parent, notable head-scratcher Alain de Botton notes that quiet, passive children are often mistaken for contented children, when actually we have little evidence of such a correlation. He also argues that while we strive to raise so-called well-behaved children, we will want to punish behavior that strays from that image, even if that behavior is understandable, rational, and developmentally important. At least, I think that’s what he says. I might well be quoting this fact based on little more than a podcast I listened to while pushing a howling toddler down a rain-slicked sidewalk beside a bus route three years ago. But whether old Alain said it or not, it is a point I believe to be worth exploring: Just how well-behaved should children be? And why does it matter?
I have spent the last week in Paris (I honestly cannot recommend more highly having your baby with a primary school teacher; not only do they have access to a commendable amount of scrap paper but they are also just around for six weeks in the summer if you want to go away and work on some different WiFi while eating differently shaped bread). Thanks to a frankly Welsh quantity of rain arriving in London at exactly the same time as us, we have spent much of the last few days in museums. And never once have I seen an invigilator, a security person, or another member of staff in any of those museums tell a child to be quiet. Nobody (well, nobody other than me) has told my son to sit still; to walk rather than run; to stop scuffing his shoes; to finish his lunch; to use an indoor voice; to get out of the way or to stop saying the word “fart.” Nobody even told him to put his toy Pokémon away as we filed past the Mona Lisa like sushi on a conveyor belt. I do hope Leonardo da Vinci was a fan of the purple plastic Gastly incarnation—I’m sure he would have been.
I’m by no means calling British museums and galleries unfriendly towards children—far from it. During the first five years of his life, my son spent more time in more brilliant cultural institutions than he might ever again. But as we trooped around the Pompidou Centre, the Louvre, the Jacques Chirac Museum of indigenous art, some weird place full of engines that a friend recommended and turned out to be as boring as chalk, I have been heartened to see the sheer force of life with which the children around me have been allowed to interact with what they’ve seen. My son actually skated past the French Crown Jewels in the Galerie d’Apollon in his Crocs (they certainly do polish those floors) shouting, “I’m a Jigglypuff!” and nobody in a lanyard came over to intervene. In case my mother is reading this, I should point out that I did manage to calm him down somewhere around the 17th-century portraits, but I was nevertheless pleased to see other children messing about, talking loudly, picking their noses, jumping out from behind headless statues and shouting “boo.” After all, a museum is a learning space, not a religious building. I would rather children were engaged and active, rather than bowed and disinterested.
All of which is to say, now that my son is five, I am feeling a little uncomfortable about all the years I spent grinding against the hot rocks of fury just because he wouldn’t do what I said. When he ignored my authority, I took it personally and I flipped out. I would shout, call him horrible names, walk away, slam things down on tables, and want to kick furniture; precisely the sort of behavior that I was condemning him for, in fact. Now that I can verbally reason with him, and now that he has some understanding of social cues, it is much easier to consider him “well-behaved,” but is he? Or has he just acquired the tools that all those years of resistance, pushing boundaries, and fighting authority gave him?