Child rearing: the idea of raising a tiny human into an adult human, not infantilizing them

I first came across the term “infantilization” in my early 30s. The term’s meaning is pretty self-explanatory: it’s about treating someone as a child perpetually, even when they are an adult. For children, it could mean treating someone in a way that is too young for their current stage of development. Anyone is capable of infantilizing another person, but the most common scenario is when a parent infantilizes their child, whether that child is still a child or a grown adult. The main reason that parents do this to their children, regardless of age, is control: they want to maintain power over someone and prevent them from being a functioning adult so that they can have a “need” for that parent forever.

I was thinking about infantilization this morning as I got Kaia ready for school. Almost a year ago, we had this routine of getting her ready each weekday morning for daycare/school. Chris would wake her, change her diaper, set her up for breakfast and go swim, while I would pack her lunch, make sure she was fed and dressed, and ready for Chris to take her to school once he was done with his morning swim and shower. About a year ago, getting her ready was a bit more challenging than now: then, she needed more encouragement and assistance in eating, whether it was with eating her Weetbix and milk with a spoon. It was harder to multi-task to feed her while also packing her lunch and cleaning. But now, she’s so much more self sufficient with her meals: she’s pretty much mastered eating cereal and milk with a spoon. She decides what she eats and in what order. I don’t have to watch her as carefully as I did a year ago with chewing food properly and swallowing. Nowadays while she eats breakfast in the mornings, I can usually get her lunch ready and dishes cleaned without much disruption (other than the occasional Cheerio or oat porridge strip flying somewhere…). Sometimes, when I’m really on an efficiency streak, I can even fully empty the dishwasher and wash, prep, and cut vegetables in preparation for dinner that evening. My little baby is maturing into an older toddler, and with that, she’s gaining skills that she will be using for life. While spoon feeding her occasionally is cute and fun, I do not wish to do it all the time, nor do I want it to take away from her learning how to use other utensils and becoming self sufficient as a growing human. I want my baby to grow and flourish and one day, become an independent (and hopefully thriving and confident) adult.

The sad thing that this triggered was the fact that I know my own parents infantilized Ed and me. In many ways, Ed never became a fully functioning adult who could make decisions for himself confidently and even talk about basic everyday topics because of how overly critical and controlling my parents were. They wanted to make all decisions for him, and when he was left to make decisions himself, he couldn’t: he just didn’t have the confidence to do it. They had us learn how to drive and get our drivers’ licenses, but then they never let us drive the car, saying “we had no experience” and “were too immature” to be trusted (how does one get experience… without experience?). Ed was never allowed to drive the car except to and from specific places (work and one specific grocery store). I was only allowed to drive the car if my parents were in the car with me. Whenever we didn’t do as well as they wanted us to in school, they always said we needed to be “more like the kids upstairs” (our older cousins, who were quite mediocre overall both in school and life) and said that if they got all A’s (this was a blatant lie), then we could, too, because they worked hard for us, so we needed to “work hard at school” for them.

There’s a lot of memories I’ve buried deep in my mind because they don’t do anything to serve me well in moving forward in life, and they only end up angering me. But I do get reminded of certain ones occasionally that I thought I’d completely forgotten about. But one that recently got dredged up because of some news article I read was how during my early twenties, my brother went back to the local community college to take math classes. He said he wanted to to try going to school again, and if he did well in this class, he’d continue enrolling in other courses, and maybe even use his credits to transfer to a four-year institution. It was such a shiny glimmer to me, that he could be taking a step in the right direction for himself and his own growth. And then, out of nowhere around the same time, someone either at his church or at work told him about a room for rent that he could consider. It was small but clean. He’d have to share a bathroom and living/dining/kitchen areas with another person, but he’d finally be independent and move out of our parents’ home. He called me multiple times and we talked it over. I insisted that he move, and the sooner, the better. But he was scared; he wasn’t sure he’d get along with the roommate. He was concerned with how small the bedroom he’d get was. He also told me multiple times that once our parents got wind of the idea, that they didn’t want him to move: our mom fought with him multiple times, screaming at the top of her lungs. She said that if he left, they wouldn’t help him with the move, and he’d have to move everything himself. He wasn’t allowed to remove “one single thing” from their house other than his clothes and his bed, even though Ed had spent a small fortune on pots, pans, kitchen supplies, and bedding and bath for the house with his small wages from Macy’s. It was so cold and threatening, so rooted in evil, hatred, and control. She just wanted to control him, and if he moved, she could no longer control him. She and our dad couldn’t put him down every single day — who else were they going to criticize daily if he left? At the end of the day, she was infantilizing him. Our mother felt threatened that her son, her oldest child, finally wanted to be an independent adult and not rely on her anymore, and that’s why she said these awful things to him. A normal parent would be thrilled that their adult child in his late twenties/early thirties would be moving out. But our parents aren’t normal. So Ed got even more scared, and he eventually declined the room for rent. And with that followed his downward spiral into a deeper depression and ultimately his suicide. He just kept believing that he was worthless, brainless, and stupid — just like our parents kept calling him to his face. Because when you get told you are something so many times, you eventually just believe it is fact. It’s like when very mediocre children get constantly praised by their helicopter parents — they end up thinking they are some gift from God and the best thing since sliced bread, and every single action they take must be perfection!

Our parents said and did a lot of awful things to us, but this specific event truly inspired a very deep-seated wrath in me against our mother, a wrath that occasionally gets ignited with specific memories and actions she continues to do. In this situation, as with others, she wasn’t helping a single person at all, yet she was so blinded by her desire for control of my brother. I kept trying to talk Ed out of his decision, but he insisted it was all done, as he’d already told the landlord he wouldn’t take the room. He eventually just told me to stop bringing it up at all. I suggested he look for other places, but he never did.

Our mom gets very sensitive when she hears we shared anything, anything, to anyone else about her and our dad outside our immediate family with others. The reason for this is clear: I think deep down, she realized what they were doing was wrong, and she feared external judgment and “losing face.” She used to repeatedly say that if we ever spoke about them to others, that we “talked against our parents, and God punishes disobedient children who go against their parents.” But, she probably never heard or believed the phrase, “The truth shall set you free.” But wait — didn’t Jesus himself say this?

I don’t want to infantilize Kaia. No well-meaning parent does. I do not want the environment my parents created for Ed and me replicated again. I want to watch her grow and be set free. I just hope she will always trust me enough to come to me and be herself. Because when you have parents who don’t trust you, who blame you for everything, who infantilize you, you will never be able to fully be yourself around them at all. My parents don’t really know me at all – they have no idea what I’m interested or passionate about, nor do I think they even care. They barely know my opinions on anything. But they made it this way, and there’s nothing I can do to change it.

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