(Some of the) Valid Reasons to Dislike Kids

And some valid ways to respond to those feelings.

Photo by Matt Hoffman, made available on Unsplash

There are a lot of decent reasons for a person to dislike or feel uncomfortable around children. None of those reasons make a person a monster, an abuser, or a neglectful adult.

Yes, children are individual human beings. Yes, every child has a distinct personality, preferences, and temperament, and it is both incorrect and immoral to paint them with a broad brush. When someone sees kids universally as greedy, annoying monsters, they’re being hateful and cruel. However, children are fundamentally different from adults in a lot of ways, and some of those ways can make them challenging to interact with for psychological, emotional, or cultural reasons.

If you see someone freeze up, check out, or seem disinterested around children, consider:

  1. Was this person tasked with raising siblings or other children while they were still a child?

When a child is thrust into parental responsibilities at a young age, future childcare obligations can feel weighted or suffocating. It may remind them of their own parental neglect and the over-sized responsibility they were forced to carry. They may have met their lifetime limit of care-giving long ago.

2. Was this person abused as a child?

Being responsible for a child, even for a short period, calls to mind our own childhood experiences. New parents often find themselves re-enacting the behavior their own parents exhibited, including behaviors they never expected to reproduce and absolutely do not endorse. Children make us think of our own pasts, and call forth old feelings, and for survivors of childhood abuse that awareness can be acutely painful. Being around a small child can also call to mind how vulnerable and sensitive the abuse victim was when they suffered their abuse, and that can be mildly re-traumatizing. It’s understandable for someone in these circumstances to want to back away when their friend tries to hand over a cooing infant.

3. Does this person have reason to doubt their own ability to care for a child?

Lots of people are unfairly seen as incapable of being good parents or caregivers. Our society is highly suspicious of the parental abilities of anyone who isn’t wealthy, well-educated, neurotypical, and otherwise privileged. This can affect how comfortable someone who isn’t all of these things feels around kids.

If someone has a abuse history, a developmental disability, a mental illness, an addiction, or if they just lack experience with children, they may be afraid of doing harm to a child in their care. Often these fears are unfounded and rooted in societal prejudice and stigma — people with disabilities have been robbed of their right to procreate for decades and decades, for example — but the wounds of those cultural messages linger on. If you’ve been told all your life that you can’t be trusted to be caring, kind, and responsible, you may blanch when finally given the chance to.

4. Does this person have a disability or disorder that makes children hard to process?

Children are varied and distinct individuals, but in a group they can be loud, fast-moving, and a little messy. While it’s unfair for adults to judge children for these very natural, perfectly fine attributes, it’s also understandable for someone to find these attributes overwhelming. People with Autism, ADHD, Sensory Processing Disorder, or anxiety may find the sounds of babies crying and children screaming to be overwhelming. A person with PTSD may find the sounds of kids play-fighting to be distressing and triggering. A person sensitive to textures or smells may not be great at handling the elaborate messes that young kids can make. None of these reactions are a moral failing.

5. Has this person been pressured to have children all their lives?

A lot of people who were assigned female at birth have been told all their lives that one day they will get pregnant and have children. In many cultures and contexts, this massive, weighty life choice is not presented as a choice at all. From a young age, afab kids are told to expect pregnancy and child-rearing as a matter of course, which can present a disturbing violation of bodily autonomy. Amab (assigned male at birth) children have parental expectations and responsibilities projected onto them, too, with the added insult of people assuming they will not like it and will not be suited for it. In most cases, when a child is told that they will one day be a parent, the assumption is also made that their co-parent will be someone of the opposite sex, and that they will monogamous and straight.

These expectations can feel deeply confining and upsetting. They’re often associated with the person being obliged to babysit the children of relatives or friends. When a child or young adult expressed disinterest in raising or birthing children, they are frequently dismissed and told that they will “change their mind”. All of these experiences can leave a person feeling trapped or panicky in the presence of a child.

6. Was this person neglected as a child?

Neglect can take many forms. Some neglected children did not receive enough food, or lived in an unstable, inconsistent setting. Others were not bathed or given clean clothes regularly. Some parents neglect their children by never speaking to them, reading to them, or listening to their concerns and fears. All these experiences are psychologically traumatic; in fact, neglect is associated more negative psychological outcomes than direct physical abuse is.

Victims of childhood neglect may not have realized how badly they were mistreated at the time. This can make seeing happy, well-cared for children especially painful to take in. This does not mean the person resents the happy, beloved child, or wishes anyone ill will; it may just mean the person cannot handle basking the warmth and love that they were themselves denied. And that’s okay.

7. Has this person been negatively affected by prejudices that kids often exhibit?

Children absorb social rules and biases like sponges. It’s not because children are hateful or predisposed to prejudice, of course — it’s because they are new citizens of the human world, trying to figure out the laws of the land. Children display a preternatural skill for absorbing grammatical rules without even trying; the same is true of social rules. You don’t have to tell a child that girls are expected to be pretty and boys are expected to be tough; they pick up on it from a very young age, and let those unspoken “rules” impact their own words and actions.

What this means, unfortunately, is that a lot of perfectly nice kids are perfectly excellent at regurgitating the racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist, ageist, fatphobic, transphobic garbage our world is infused with. This doesn’t mean the kids are irredeemable bigots. But it does mean that they can cause unwitting harm to the people around them. And if an adult was exposed to a lot of hateful garbage when they were a kid, it can be particularly disturbing to see and hear that same hate spewing from the next generation.

As a society we have a responsibility to raise children better, to educate them, to introduce them to different kinds of people, to ask challenging questions, and to fight our own prejudices, which can seem easily into the heads of kids around us. However, if an adult was (and is) subjected to a lot of prejudiced crap, day after day, it’s not their job to take somebody else’s biased kid and make them a little less so. Even if the person knows that the child didn’t mean to be hurtful, it can still sting to subject oneself to hateful words and ideas.

It is okay for an adult to dislike children.

For any of the above reasons. And for many other reasons I was not able to anticipate here. This does not mean it’s acceptable for an adult to be neglectful, irresponsible, or cruel when a toddler stumbles over to them after Christmas dinner. This doesn’t give anybody an excuse to check out of parental responsibilities or child-rearing obligations that they already have. And it certainly doesn’t mean child-free adults have carte blanche to be rude and dismissive to their child-having or child-wanting loved ones.

What all this does mean, though, is that it’s acceptable for an adult to demur on an offer to babysit, hold, or spend unsupervised time with a child. It means it’s understandable if an adult is uncomfortable, withdrawn, or distant at a gathering filled with children. It means that people who have or love kids should try not to judge individuals who aren’t naturally good with children. It means it’s okay for an adult to be a little bit awkward or shy when a child approaches them. It means none of us should assume that a person wants children or wants to care for them, even informally.

How should you behave if you dislike kids?

It is incorrect and immoral for an adult to insult children, ignore their needs, hit them, invalidate them, or otherwise abuse them. No adult, no matter their history, should ever be permitted to engage in that behavior.

However, it should be considered socially acceptable for someone to be politely distant around children. People who are uncomfortable around kids should not be expected to watch children on their own, and shouldn’t be tasked with entertaining kids at a family gathering or party.

In most cases, adults who dislike kids can still acknowledge the child’s presence, ask the child a polite question or engage with them briefly in conversation, and then withdraw slightly, so that more child-loving people can lead the interaction. High levels of (fake) enthusiasm should not be required. But refusing to acknowledge a child should also not be permitted.

Children deserve to feel safe and seen. A child’s parents or caregivers should take responsibility for surrounding the child with safe, emotionally present people. However, a child can handle being around one or two adults who do not worship the ground they walk on. The adult world is filled with politely chilly people. It is okay for a child to learn that at a young age. In fact, learning that there are adults who dislike children, and who do not want to have children, can be a meaningful, validating experience for a child who may grow up to feel the same way.

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