I sit here on a gloriously fickle spring morning. Two days ago, it was so hot, we had to throw open all the windows. Today, the mercury reads 53 F and its probably colder because of the frigid, gusty wind. Jeff Buckley is singing a brilliant rendition of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah on the stereo. Three quotes about childhood catch my eye.
The first was on our changing attitudes on misbehavior from an entry in the popular Mind Hacks blog:
“During the 19th and 20th centuries, a new conceptualization of childhood and how children ought to behave emerged in both popular culture and the medical world. A model child embodied the ideals necessary for the new industrial economy: self-regulated behavior and orderly social relations.
Childhood became the critical period for learning restraint and developing a proper social identity in order to grow up to be a successful adult. This prevailing characterization of a good child generated its opposite: the troublesome child. A broad range of social problems fell into this category of misbehavior and could include difficulty in schoolwork, fighting, and failure to obey authority.”
The second is a quote from Alison Gopnik’s “The Philosophical Baby”. She writes in the introduction:
“Children and adults are different forms of Homo Sapiens. They have very different, though equally complex and powerful, minds, brains, and forms of consciousness, designed to serve different evolutionary functions. Human development is more like metamorphosis, like caterpillars becoming butterfiles than like simple growth – though it may seem that children are the vibrant, wandering butterflies who transform into caterpillars inching along the grown-up path.”
The third is a quote by George Orwell. He’s been whipped at his boarding school for wetting his bed again. He writes:
“The second beating had not hurt very much either. Fright and shame seemed to have anesthetized me. I was crying partly because I felt that this was expected of me, partly from genuine repentance, but partly also because of a deeper grief which is peculiar to childhood and not easy to convey: a sense of desolate loneliness and helplessness, of being locked up not only in a hostile world but in a world of good and evil where the rules were such that it was actually not possible for me to keep them.”
As I flounder sometimes on the rocks of parenthood, I struggle with the message in these quotes. A fairly standard way of thinking about children is that they’re primitive, incomplete, adults and that a chief task of a parent is to turn them into well formed adults. What we consider normal of children and therefore tolerate and what we consider misbehaving and therefore punish has a strong societal factor, and is something that changes with time (another example is that letting children cry themselves to sleep would be abhorrent in any other time or society, it seems evolutionarily maladaptive). And children struggle to make sense of the world, trying to establish patterns that’ll help them predict how they can get more of what they want. Punishing them as they struggle in this task is traumatic and incomprehensible to them (and incomprehensible to us how it can be incomprehensible to them). After all, they’re not being defiant to frustrate you, but they’re trying to figure out how the world works. If I can help them understand what patterns will not get them what they want (such as crying and throwing a tantrum) and what patterns will, is that a better approach or is punishing one way of ensuring that they learn the lesson much more quickly. Is learning quickly the right thing or just the more convenient thing ?
I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah – Hallelujah, Leonard Cohen
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