“Children should be seen and not heard,” the old saying goes. But what does “children should be seen and not heard” mean? And who said children should be seen and not heard?
For Christians, the most important question is: does this teaching reflect the heart of Jesus? Maybe you’ve heard this phrase in Christian circles, but does that make it “Christian”? Read on for answers and scripture for all of these questions.
What Does “Children Should Be Seen and Not Heard” Mean?
The children should be seen and not heard quote means that children should not speak in the presence of adults. Their value to a social situation is to be pleasant to the eye, but do not add value to a conversation. It is generally said along with “Do not speak unless spoken to.”
It has often been taught to children as a rebuke about making noise. Some see it as a matter of respect and honoring the chain of authority. However, the history of the proverb or saying gives more insight into its deeper implications.
Who Said Children Should Be Seen and Not Heard?
So, who came up with children should be seen and not heard? The saying has been traced back to a 15th century English proverb. Originally, it was directed specifically at young women.
To give context to the time this saying was written, it’s important to know that women were seen as second-class citizens. It was the expectation in the culture for young women to keep quiet. Their needs were less important than the needs of others.
What does Seen and Not Heard mean today? When the phrase is spoken in modern times, it is primarily aimed directly at all children. But it has the same implications and consequences. It tells a child that their thoughts are not important enough to share, that their needs are not worth asking for, and that they are second-class citizens.
Should a Child Be Seen and Not Heard?
It depends on your values and priorities. Do you value old sayings from worldly authorities or do you follow another way? At Gentle Christian Parenting, we follow the teachings of Christ above all other sayings or teachings.
No scripture indicates children should be seen and not heard. On the contrary, as you will read below from scripture, this teaching is incompatible with biblical, Christ-like living.
What the Bible Says About Children Should Be Seen and Not Heard
God paints truths across the entirety of the Bible and helps us to understand His heart and desire for us through a variety of lessons. God wants us to know and follow His ways.
One thing you’ll see consistently across scripture is that God chooses the things that are low and unimportant in the eyes of the world to do His work. He is not impressed by age, status, or resumes.
“God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things–and the things that are not–to nullify the things that are,” (I Corinthians 1:28).
Old Testament Scriptures About Listening to Children
The Story of Samuel
In 1 Samuel 3, we learn that Samuel, a young child, has been given into the service of the Lord and is under the stewardship of the high priest, Eli. But God, according to scripture rarely spoke to people in those days. He chose to speak to Samuel. He called to Samuel three times and each time Samuel ran to Eli, thinking he was the one that had called him.
Eli told Samuel to speak up, saying, “… if he calls you, say ‘Speak LORD, for your servant is listening.’”(NIV) God made Samuels his messenger delivering a word to him that he was to make sure was heard.
What God Tells Isaiah
In Isaiah 1:17 God tells his people that right living means amplifying the voices of the weak, not silencing them. “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow” (NIV).
Taking up the cause of the fatherless and pleading the case of the widow helps a person on the outside of society, a second-class citizen, get their voice and needs to be heard.
What was Jesus’s Relationship with Children?
Jesus sought out and gave voice to all who were looked down upon in the world’s eyes… including children. In Matthew 19, the disciples had the same mindset as those who think “children should be seen and not heard.” Children’s needs and voices were not valuable enough to waste the time of Jesus. But Jesus corrected them.
“Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14, NIV).
Jesus Invites the Lowly to Speak
The Samaritan woman at the well in John 4 is a good biblical story to examine in regards to who should be seen and heard. It is especially poignant considering the original saying was directed at women.
For context, this woman might be lucky to be called a second-class citizen, she probably was considered a few rungs lower. Not only was she a woman, but a Samaritan, who was looked down on by the Jews. And to top it off she was not married and had a scandalous past. Biblical scholars will tell you she was alone at the well at that time of day because she was looked down upon by other Samaritan women.
As an upstanding male Jew, Jesus should not have spoken to her. But Jesus has no regard for class. He does not submit to the values of the kingdoms, rulers, and systems of the world. As Tim Keller put it in Generous Justice, “God loves and defends those with the least economic and social power, and so should we. That is what it means to ‘do justice.’”
So, Jesus not only spoke to her but started with a question. He prompted her to speak, not make her voice heard. It was so unusual; it took her off guard.
“When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)
The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans)” (John 4:7-9, NIV).
As you read through the gospels, watch for how often Jesus asks the outcasts of the world a question. He asks the blind, poor, the woman caught in adultery, the sinners, lepers, and all who have no voice in the world.
Jesus asks to hear their voices.
Some Final Thoughts on Children Should Be Seen and Not Heard.
One more scripture that speaks to the dangers of this teaching is found in Proverbs 22:6, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (ESV).
This seen but not heard parenting teaching is short-sighted. It serves the convenience and comfort of the parent while training a child in a way they should not go. Do you want an adult who does “Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow” as God told Isaiah to do?
What about when a child faces abuse? What’s the number one thing a predator tells a child? “Don’t tell.”
Do you want to put a child in grave danger, to train them up to be a weak adult who believes their voice doesn’t matter? For what? To serve culture, convenience, and tradition? Or do you want your child to be heard, for their voice to speak the truth when it’s not easy, to share from their hearts without being asked?
The way of Christ is not easy, but it is better. Yes, it requires sacrifice, inconvenience, and humility; but so did the cross.
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