The sentiment ‘better seen than heard’ reflects a larger social attitude of the value of children’s voices, namely that they have none. Children should remain silent, and they are ‘good’ when they’re quiet, but ‘bad’ when they are not, because they are disturbing the adults and causing trouble. This attitude runs through the way people interact with children on every level, and yet, they seem surprised when it turns out that children have been struggling with serious medical problems, or they’ve been assaulted or abused.
The most common response is ‘well why didn’t the child say something?’ or ‘why didn’t the child talk to an adult?’ Adults constantly assure themselves that children know to go to a grownup when they are in trouble, and they even repeat that sentiment to children; you can always come to us, adults tell children, when you need help. Find a trusted adult, a teacher or a doctor or a police officer or a firefighter, and tell that adult what’s going on, and you’ll be helped, and everything will be all right.
The thing is that children do that, and the adults don’t listen. Every time a child tells an adult about something and nothing happens, that child learns that adults are liars, and that they don’t provide the promised help. Children hold up their end of the deal by reporting, sometimes at great personal risk, and they get no concrete action in return. Sometimes, the very adult people tell a child to ‘trust’ is the least reliable person; the teacher is friends with the priest who is molesting a student, the firefighter plays pool with the father who is beating a child, they don’t want to cause a scene.
Or children are accused of lying for attention because they accused the wrong person. They’re told they must be mistaken about what happened, unclear on the specifics, because there’s no way what they’re saying could be true, so and so isn’t that kind of person. A mother would never do that. He’s a respected member of the community! In their haste to close their ears to the child’s voice, adults make sure the child’s experience is utterly denied and debunked. Couldn’t be, can’t be, won’t be. The child knows not to say such things in the future, because no one is listening, because people will actively tell the child to be quiet.
Children are also told that they aren’t experiencing what they’re actually experiencing, or they’re being fussy about nothing. A child reports a pain in her leg after gym class, and she’s told to quit whining. Four months later, everyone is shocked when her metastatic bone cancer becomes unavoidably apparent. Had someone listened to her in the first place when she reported the original bone pain and said it felt different that usual, she would have been evaluated sooner. A child tells a teacher he has trouble seeing the blackboard, and the teacher dismisses it, so the child is never referred for glasses; the child struggles with math until high school, when someone finally acknowledges there’s a problem.
This attitude, that children shouldn’t be believed, puts the burden of proof on children, rather than assuming that there might be something to their statements. Some people seem to think that actually listening to children would result in a generation of hopelessly spoiled brats who know they can say anything for attention, but would that actually be the case? That assumption is rooted in the idea that children are not trustworthy, and cannot be respected. I’m having trouble understanding why adults should be viewed as inherently trustworthy and respectable, especially in light of the way we treat children.
Children talk, but no one listens. They say things, but no one pays attention to them. They provide ample warning, but no one heeds it. And they learn from a very early age to stay quiet, to remain silent about the things happening to them, to muscle through pain, to say nothing about abuse or sexual assault, to pretend that everything is fine. Because so many of the adults around them have reinforced the fact that they will be punished for talking, despite what adults may say about being caring and the importance of confiding ‘in a trusted person.’
Vulnerable children often have no one to trust. A child who is being abused by family members who are threatening him or his siblings if he tells is in a very fragile position. When adults fail that person, that child grows suspicious of them, and when they keep failing, the child has learned a very valuable lesson: Don’t trust adults. Hide from adults. Conceal what you can from adults, because they won’t help you, and there’s a chance they could hurt you. That lesson becomes deeply internalised, and that child passes it on to other children, too, especially in communities where people in general are suspicious of authorities who claim to be ready to help them.
And yet, adults wonder why it is that children are often so reluctant to come forward to report things. Adults don’t consider their own role in a toxic culture that tells children their voices have no value and will not be listened to because no one is interested. They say they’ve done their duty by informing children that they should report things to trusted adults, and if children can’t even be trusted to do that, it’s not the fault of the adults around them.
They seem to assume that certain adults deserve trust on the basis of their status alone, but what they don’t understand is that trust is a thing that is earned, not automatically dispensed.