Teaching children to shut up

My daughter’s kindergarten class received its H1N1 inoculation yesterday. Parents were invited to attend at the appointed time to help ease any fears. About one-third of the parents showed up and my daughter had no problems whatsoever.

Oh, but things weren’t totally peachy. The parent(s) of at least one student declined the vaccination. A problem arose when this child began telling classmates beforehand that the vaccination would make them sick, that it would hurt them, and boy oh boy, they shouldn’t get vaccinated.

And thus, at least one of the children broke out in tears (we know because we spoke to the parent of the shaken child).

I’m not debating here the parents’ no-vaccination choice. It’s their roll of the dice with their child. I too was fearful of vaccines at one point early in my parenting career.

However, I do take issue with young children challenging the beliefs of other children or adults. Suppose it’s not vaccinations. Suppose a child is telling your kid he believes in the wrong god, or there is no god, or evolution is real or the Garden of Eden is real, there is no Santa Claus, vegetarian diets are best and Thanksgiving turkey is bad for you, or whatever hot button belief you’ve taught your child that is likely to cause conflict when discussed with people at large.

We’re not talking about young adults able to rationalize and debate. We’re talking very young children who need to understand how to react when they encounter a person who believes differently than themselves.

So, when teaching children your beliefs, also teach them that some people don’t believe as you do. Teach them how to talk, and not talk, to such a person if the issue ever comes up. In the vaccine situation, it’s probably best to hold your tongue, and if asked why you’re not getting vaccinated, say Mom and Dad don’t want me to.

I suppose, too, that it’s everyone’s job to teach the opposite — how to respond to the odd man out.

It’s a tough situation for the one or two children who are different in a class, maybe they’re sort of temporary outcasts. Maybe there’s a pull on that child to ‘normalize deviance,’ to make the difference not so different, to defend it and/or attack the opposing viewpoint.

It seems this dilemma only gets worse as children progress from preschool through high school, with the opportunity for becoming social outcasts only greater, depending on the nature of the difference.

I don’t know. What do you think?  My apologies for the provocative title. I wouldn’t use that word choice with a child, but it’s essentially what I’d be thinking if someone was trying to persuade my daughter not to accept a vaccination that could save her life.


13 Responses to “Teaching children to shut up”

  1. Robin says:

    No matter what you say to a child, we have very little control over how they will convey that information to others. I don’t think it’s wrong to provide children with the information as to “why” they’re not getting a vaccine, for example…and the parents may have also said this is what “our family” believes, or you have an egg allergy, or whatever. The key is in teaching your child that “just because someone says something, it doesn’t make it true (for us)”.

    November 6th, 2009 at 5:22 am

  2. Angelique says:

    Well and thoughtfully put. There’s a time and place for everything; kids have to learn that too.

    November 6th, 2009 at 8:17 am

  3. Isi says:

    We teach our 4 that everyone has choices and that people can make the choices in their life as the go along. Sometimes there are right choices and sometimes wrong, and sometimes the choices are different for each person. That has worked pretty well for us and it has made our kids more inquisitive than expected – in the case you describe above i would expect a comment from my oldest asking the other child why they chose not to get the shot, and once the answered he would validate such a choice with us if he didn’t understand it.

    We even use this technique to help manage attitudes, fighting, punishment, rewards, etc… Why did you choose to do or not do xxxx – what were your other choices … and sometimes the choice resulted in a reward or good job, other times it resulted in punishment or extra chores – they have learned that all choices come with consequences – sometime positive and sometimes negative.

    November 6th, 2009 at 9:38 am

  4. KGS says:

    I wonder how the anti-vaccine child’s parents felt about that situation. It’s sometimes hard to predict when and how our words will come spilling out of our kids’ mouths in the most awkward ways, although I hope I would have seen that one coming.

    We had some tense moments in line for seasonal flu shots last month when an 8 year old in front of us started having hysterics. “Why is she crying?” asked my 3 year old (who’s never had a problem with shots but had clearly begun to be scared). The “big kid” wailed that she was afraid of shots, and the eyes of other young kids in line started to grow huge… I asked the older child if she was afraid of sharks (my daughter is) and she said no. We spent the rest of the wait discussing how some people were afraid of sharks and not shots and vice versa and averted group hysteria, thank goodness. There’s nothing quite like kids’ group immunizations!

    November 6th, 2009 at 10:40 am

  5. Allison says:

    I wish that all parents were as thoughtful about these things as you and the others commenting on this post are. I wish that all parents did teach their children to respect other peoples beliefs and choices but sadly I don’t think that is the case. Which is why it is important to also teach our children how to respond to people who are over stepping the bounds and not respecting the beliefs and choices of others.

    I have heard enough of crazy accusations surrounding the H1N1 vaccinations that I have maybe become a little too cynical but I am inclined to think the parents of that particular child may have felt their child should not shut up but continue to “speak the truth”.

    November 6th, 2009 at 1:00 pm

  6. june says:

    I think generally in these situations the kids are talking just like their parents do. And it’s awfully hard to convince parents to teach their kids to be respectful when the parents themselves are not. I’ve had parents say all of the above–and much worse–to me when they found out that I do vaccinate.

    November 6th, 2009 at 1:28 pm

  7. My Boaz's Ruth says:

    *THUMBS UP* June.

    Not just vaccination, but many different subjects when parenting is involved.

    November 6th, 2009 at 1:40 pm

  8. Mary says:

    While I agree with you that there is a time and a place for keeping your mouth shut, children included, we cannot control what our children will say. We can only influence them and hope to instill the right and wrong things to say in situations like this. The parent of this child may or may not have told their child not to share why they aren’t getting vaccinated. Ultimately, the child decided to say something, regardless of any prior warnings not to (or lack thereof). In the matters of children, I agree that we need to teach them when is the right time to speak up and when it the right time to hold back. Often, we see comedy shows, or even witness in life, a child saying something that you would otherwise have them not. Such as when a child reveals something they heard Mommy or Daddy say about someone else to that person. Or how about some embarrassing fact about yourself? Or how about that slip of some profane word you wish you didn’t say around your son or daughter? In this instance, it is very probably that the parents didn’t explain to their child about keeping quiet. In which case, they should have to prevent other children from any undue stress or worry.

    November 6th, 2009 at 6:37 pm

  9. gertie says:

    I have heard first graders say things such as “That’s family business, I don’t really talk about it.” “I’m supposed to tell you to ask your mom*.” and “My family does something different, but that’s okay.” All of these comments were made in regard to religious observances, but I think they could work and other situations.

    Teaching kids when to shut up is not just a polite thing for parents to do, but it’s also an important social skill for the kids to learn. Great article!

    *I’d add ‘or dad’, of course.

    November 6th, 2009 at 7:43 pm

  10. Mariana Perri says:

    Loved the topic… I always try to keep “grown up” subjects away from my child… They tend to give their own interpretation to what they hear…

    November 6th, 2009 at 8:20 pm

  11. grouchy mama says:

    Well…I think it’s ok to teach your child to speak up for what they think is right. Certainly, there is a time to keep things to yourself, but, there is also a time to say, no, I disagree. The thing with children is, they are still learning the right time and place. I think you should talk to this child’s parents, because, what a perfect lesson about how their words scared the other children….

    Gertie, I like the response examples that you gave. However, I’m wary of teaching my daughter too much about being “polite” and too little about being “honest”.

    Always a dilemma….

    Thanks for the thoughtful post, AJ.

    November 7th, 2009 at 1:53 pm

  12. Dallas says:

    I grew up with a funeral director father and a mother who taught Human Sexuality on a college level. I asked the big questions early. I was probably the only 2nd grader in my small town who knew how babies were made. I also heard some interesting things about Dad’s job when Mom asked, “How was work today?”

    My Mother was very adamant with me, when explaining sex, that it was a “very special discussion” that Mommies and daughters shared, and that if the subject ever came up, to tell the other child, “My Mother says that’s something you need to talk to your parents about, not with me.” As for death, causes of, processes of grieving, etc., my Dad taught me to say, (especially when asked some of the more inquisitive questions), “Death is a very personal subject, and not something I really need to talk about, why don’t you ask your family about it.”

    I believe there was one time when a teacher innocently asked me “Was it Mr. X. Jr. who died, or Mr. X. Sr.?” and I told her to ask her family about it, it was a personal subject! ;-)

    All that aside, I think the best answers to teach a child when debatable subjects arise is always, “People have different opinions for different reasons, and we decide what is right for our family, while your family will decide what is right for them.”

    November 7th, 2009 at 3:54 pm

  13. Joe says:

    Conflict leads to conflict resolution, then growth. Worrying that other parents are filling their children with beliefs that they will then espouse to other children, thus damaging those other children, is kinda silly. You don’t have to like it, but as long as man is a social creature, it is to be expected.

    November 16th, 2009 at 10:30 am