Different labels for adults and children

From the archives: The original post was posted on 15th October, 1995

A poster wrote:

“Just to show that it works both ways and that it ain’t that simple.”

I think there is a grain of truth in this. There are conventions which work in favour of children as well as ones which work against them. The problem is, they are all part of the wider convention of not taking children seriously. Perhaps it is not your intention to argue that children get ‘a good deal’ out of their current status, but some do say that, and one could have used exactly the same argument in the days of slavery, and it would have been equally specious.


If an adult acts foolish, we call him childish. When a child acts foolish, we call him cute.”

It is true that if an adult we don’t respect or like “acts foolish”, we call him childish. But in most cases we bend over backwards to interpret adults’ actions in a positive way, in a way we do not do for children. Adults do the most stupid things sometimes, without censure, whilst for a child, similar behaviour or mistakes would be deemed evidence of “needing” coercion to “save him from himself”.

“If an adult interrupts a conversation, we call him rude. When a child interrupts a converstion, we call him precocious.”

Rot! When an adult interrupts a conversation, we think “Gosh how rude”, but we would not be rude enough to say so. When a child interrupts we say sharply “Don’t interrupt me when I’m talking!”

“If an adult rebels, we call him a misfit. When a child rebels, we say he’s exploring his individuality.”

On the contrary, there is no concept of an adult “rebelling”. That word is reserved for children. Adults are “eccentric” (or “criminal”). Children are “rebels” (or “criminals”) – and the term “rebel” here is used for perfectly reasonable behaviour which no adult would ever be criticised for. Children are “rebels” when they choose not to obey. Adults are not expected to obey.

“If an adult throws a fit, we call it a nervous breakdown. When a child throws a fit, we call him tired.”

Yes, and calling extreme distress “tiredness” is not a good thing for the child, if that is what you are implying. But you are right, we do not want to take responsibility for the damage caused by our treatment of our children. We want to say “he’s tired” when in fact, we have coerced him into an appallingly bad state of mind.

“If an adult refuses to cooperate, we call him insubordinate. When a child refuses to cooperate, we call him independent.”

No, if an adult refuses to cooperate, we only call him “insubordinate” if we are an officer in the military or something. In everyday life, we feel irritated or whatever by lack of cooperation but do not think that gives us the right to use force on the adult, as we do when it is a child who is not cooperating.

“If an adult is selfish, we call him conceited. When a child is selfish, we call him needy.”

We force children to “share” their “toys”. We think that adults have the right not to share their toys – err – possessions, I mean. In children, “selfishness” is to be stamped out by coercion if necessary; in adults, it is perfectly reasonable.

“If an adult pouts, we call him spoiled. When a child pouts, we call him moody.”

Let me quote from an article David Deutsch wrote for Taking Children Seriously, about an episode of Star Trek, in which some adult crew members find their bodies (not their minds, note) changed into children’s bodies:

“Ensign Ro Laren [is accused of] of ‘pouting’, to which she responds: ‘I am not twelve years old. If I want to go back to my room and contemplate my situation, that does not mean I am “pouting”.’ She is right. We call the same behaviour ‘pouting’ when it is done by a twelve-year-old, and ‘contemplating one’s situation’ when it is done by an adult.”

This word “pout” is just not used in connection with adults. We interpret their behaviour much more sympathetically, considering the content, the meaning of the behaviour. In children, we ignore the content, the meaning, and write it off as “pouting”.

“If an adult makes a mess, we call him irresponsible. When a child makes a mess, we call him creative.”

No one thinks an adult must be forced to keep his own home tidy. Almost everyone believes that adults have the perfect right to force children to be tidy. No one thinks anyone has the same right to do that to another adult.

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 1995, ‘Different labels for adults and children’, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/different-labels-for-adults-and-children/

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