Picture this: You come across a post in your Facebook feed entitled: Why is your Grandma crying? You click on to see a series of pictures of distressed and upset elderly women with tears streaming down their faces. Each picture has a caption, "Because she couldn't find her glasses", "Because she couldn't find her way back to her room" "Because she wanted it to be Friday" and so on. What is your response? Upset? Disgust? You might think, “Who on earth would post such a disrespectful unempathic piece?” I doubt very much that many people would find it funny and go on to click like and share with all. Now, what if we replaced the elderly women with toddlers? Does that change how we respond to it?
My question is this: Why has it become Ok to berate and shame one vulnerable group and not another? Somehow it has become acceptable and the norm to see pictures of babies and toddlers in distress on social media sites, where adults are belittling the reason for their upset…You might think that my reaction is over the top or that I am being a stick in the mud? Before you tell me to get off my bleeding heart liberal high horse, hear me out…I absolutely get that parenting is hard and that we all need an outlet to vent… And that it's better to laugh than cry and all that jazz. But what I just don’t get is why it has to be at the expense of our children. Shouldn’t children be treated with the same kindness and respect that we treat other adults? Instinctively, treating children how we would like to be treated ourselves feels right, but let’s take a look at some lessons from psychology and children’s rights legislation.
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child has helped to bring us forward in our thinking around children and young people’s rights. When we think of children’s rights, we tend to think of the big issues, like child trafficking, homelessness and poverty. We also need to think about how these rights come into play in the day to day lives of all children. Some of the rights that are helpful to bear in mind when it comes to the care of our children are: the right to protection against discrimination; acting in our child’s best interests; the right to an identity, the right to a private life, the right to be protected from exploitation. I would argue that publically shaming children on social media is in breach of many of these. Incidentally, I am not the only one worried about the rights of children in our digital age. The UN committee on the Rights of the Child recently held a day of talks about digital media and children’s rights and a new ‘iRights’ initiative aims to protect children’s rights in the world of the internet.
That brings me onto what, for me, is most worrying about publically shaming children and the reason I am writing this: What of the experience of the children in these photos? What must it feel like to be struggling with a big feeling that you don't understand and the person, who you rely on to contain that feeling, instead of offering acceptance, understanding and empathy, snaps a photo. We know that babies are born primed to connect with us and neuroscience tells us that how we respond to our children literally shapes their brains. By the age of 3, a child already has around 80 percent of their brain mass. Brain development in the early years is rapid, which means that the brain is particularly sensitive at this stage. How we respond to our children’s efforts to communicate with us matters.
And what about shame? Psychologists love to talk about shame. Perhaps, it's because the research on shame is so conclusive. It is well known that shame has far reaching consequences for children’s well being. Shaming a child doesn’t say that the action itself is bad, it says that the child is bad, which can eat away at a child’s self worth, leading to resentment, fear, retaliation and studies show that repeated shaming is linked to depression later in life.
In short, we know that shaming and humiliating children is damaging. Berating children on social media is a form of bullying, so let’s STOP the normalisation of laughing at their expense and berating them for behaving in ways that are often entirely developmentally appropriate. Our children do not have the means to defend themselves in this case, so we, as the adults, need to advocate on their behalf. We can choose to parent and teach our children with compassion and to set limits and boundaries in respectful ways. Do I think stopping bullying babies and children in the media is going to change the world? Eh, no, but it's a step in the right direction towards treating others how we would like to be treated ourselves. Children live what they learn, so let's SHOW them how we would like them to behave… oh and if we wouldn’t do it to our granny, perhaps we shouldn't do it to our children.