Sat | Oct 20, 2018

Michael Abrahams | Children should be seen and heard

Published:Monday | November 27, 2017 | 12:00 AM
Michael Abrahams

One of the most unfortunate adages is “Children should be seen and not heard”. It originated in the 15th century, and was coined by a clergyman. In its original form it read “A mayde schuld be seen, but not herd”. In old English, a mayde was a young woman, and the proverb originally meant that young women should not speak in the presence of adults. However, it evolved to include all children. The popular maxim is often used to scold children who interfere in the conversations of adults, or make noise while adults are interacting with one another.

Children should be taught to understand and respect boundaries. I am all for that. They must learn that when adults are conversing, they are not to butt in and offer opinions unless invited. But many people take the saying seriously and believe that it should be followed literally. What we must understand is that just because something is repeated often and with confidence, by persons in positions of authority, does not mean the utterance is valid. "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me" is an excellent example. We know that the effects of unkind words can affect people for a lifetime. Similarly, a mindset that holds on tenaciously to the dictate that children should be seen and not heard, is one that does not auger well for our youth, for a multiplicity of reasons.

Such a saying diminishes the value of children’s opinions, which are important. Children are like sponges. They absorb the information surrounding them more than we realise. Some of the information is straightforward. Some is not. But their little brains are busy trying to decipher and interpret the stimuli they are exposed to. Being inexperienced and immature, misinterpretation is inevitable. The ability to express themselves empowers children, and affords them the opportunity to be corrected and guided appropriately.

Children today are exposed to so much more than I was during my formative years. Cable television and the Internet have given today’s children access to a mind-blowing amount of content, much of which is adult-oriented. If they are uncomfortable discussing the information they come across with the adults charged with their care, they will seek audiences with their peers and, left to their own devices, draw their own misguided conclusions and construct warped value systems.

With the rampant sexual abuse of our children today, allowing them to speak is even more crucial. Recently, I was asked to speak to children from grades 4 to 6, at a popular preparatory school, about child abuse. During the question-and-answer session that followed, some of the queries directed at me were sobering. I knew that some of the children asked me questions about topics they probably would not feel comfortable discussing with their parents, such as sex, abortion, contraception, molestation and rape.

It would be wise for those who are squeamish about discussing these issues with their children to empower themselves with the courage to take on this challenge, as it can be life-saving. Too many times I have met survivors of child sexual abuse who were afraid to tell their parents about their experiences because they felt uncomfortable. I have been told on more than one occasion by a survivor of abuse that they “did not have that kind of relationship” with their parents, one that would facilitate them reporting being violated. Subsequently, they suffered in silence, sometimes for decades.

Not only should we listen to our children, but also encourage them to speak out and express their opinions and feelings at appropriate times and in appropriate places. And when we listen, we must be attentive and “listen between the lines”, as sometimes children have information they would like to share with us, but do not know how to go about doing so. They may also find themselves in situations where they may be at risk of harm and not realise it.

From my own experience, I can tell you that picking up my children from school, and simply listening to them tell me about their day, has proven to be not just a great source of amusement and comedy material, but has also helped me to bond with them and provided a space in which they can confide in me and share their concerns without fear or judgement. Our society today comes up short regarding respect. One way to teach children respect, is to lead by example and show them respect, including validating their opinions. This also empowers them with self-confidence, which is a critical tool for their survival.

The voices of our children must be heard, acknowledged and respected if they, and our society, are to be functional and healthy.

- Michael Abrahams is a gynaecologist and obstetrician, comedian and poet. Email feedback to and, or tweet @mikeyabrahams