02 July 2011

Assumptions / Respect is a two way street


The other day my son and I were coming out of a bakery, happily carrying munchables. He lagged in the doorway, distracted, and a lady behind him politely said, “Excuse us!” so that she could get through the doorway. We apologised and stepped out of the way. However, as she was alone and she had used the word “us”, my boy's Aspie brain heard what she said as a literal phrase, and he consequently wondered out aloud who the other part of the “us” was, even going so far as to check inside the bakery for a second person. The woman turned on him, scowled angrily, and told him not to be so rude.

She had assumed that his smile meant he was trying to intentionally push her buttons, when in fact he was attempting to engage with her in a friendly way, with an innocent and literal question. Even his tone and body language told her so, but she made negative assumptions about his motivations all the same.

I told her that he has Autism and that he doesn't know if he sounds rude, and she huffed curtly in reply and left. The inference in my statement was, “Don't assume you know what's in front of you, because you could be wrong.” I'm not sure whether she picked up on that though.

At the time I recall feeling quite angry, because she had in turn been quite rude in tone to him, and hadn't then taken back her accusation - simply because he is a child and she can get away with it because she's an adult. The double standard really pushed my buttons, as I was sure she had wanted him to apologise, but she wasn't willing to treat him with the same respect.

People make assumptions all the time, in particular about the negative, supposedly manipulative motivations of children. What they forget is that all children and young people, even underneath the bluff and bluster of teenage cynicism, want to please adults and receive positive feedback. The truth is, the same could also be said of most adults – we all enjoy being liked and we all like getting positive feedback from others. If adults mishandle an interaction and come across as rude, they rarely have intentionally planned it that way before they enter the conversation – in most cases they are reacting to circumstances. So why do we jump to thinking that children, who have far less skill and social finesse than adults, have evil manipulative intentions whenever they make a social mistake?

It's all a nonsensical cultural stuff-up from pre-1970s, when the child was seen as the enemy, as a manipulative beast to be watched at all times. But that was over 40 years ago, when it was also considered immoral to keep children born out of wedlock! Let's get real, we adults need to get with the times and look at children differently. It's easy to set a better example to the kids in our world, and it all comes down to this: if we want them to respond nicely to us, then we need to set out assuming their intentions are good, and maybe they just made a mistake when they sounded the way they did. They are, after all, still learning.

Or maybe, just maybe, it's possible that we've misunderstood and we need to apologise. After all, we're not infallible, and a bit of humility never hurt anyone.

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