Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Nature of Children

originally posted at Reepicheep's Coracle

Just as it is important for us to define the nature of humans before we start to talk about ethics, we should also define the nature of children before we start to talk about parenting.

First, are children rational (i.e. able to use reason to make decisions)? This is a more complex question than it seems. Babies certainly are not. Small children come in and out of rationality, sometimes able to reason, sometimes not. Older children reach a point where they are capable of reason, but they may not yet have the practice and judgment to be left completely in charge of every aspect of their lives. Reason develops as all other abilities do, over time. There is not a day when suddenly a child goes from being utterly incapable of reason to able to use it all the time.

So, are children rational in the way adults are? No, they are not always capable of using reason. However, they are not irrational, either. They are not to be likened to adults who choose not to use reason when they are able to. They simply have not fully developed the capability yet.

Are they a-rational like animals? No, even though they are not constantly capable of using reason, they are developing this capacity all the time. They are not completely without rationality, even at a very young age (as seen in concept formation of toddlers). They have the potential for rationality at all times, unlike animals, and their brains are engaged in the growth toward rationality at all times.

I think of children as proto-rational. Though we cannot take for granted that they are able to reason at all times, we must constantly be aware of their potential for and growth towards rationality.

Next, these proto-rational creatures, like all humans, are neither inherently good or inherently bad. They have the potential to choose to be good or bad. There are metaphysically given facts about human children (I believe a drive toward the ability to reason is one of them), but there can be no inherent moral states. Morality is, by it's very definition, the realm of choice.

I have also observed that children have a built-in desire to imitate and please the adults around them. This is not second-handedness, as it would be in an adult, because they do not choose it. Perhaps this desire to please evolved as a survival strategy. I can imagine that it would greatly increase the chances for survival if a young child imitated the adults in the tribe and sought their approval by obeying the survival oriented commands he was given.

I have also observed that children all want to be adults and to succeed in adult tasks. Even in the face of parents who glorify a fairy tale idea of childhood, children still beg for more privileges, more responsibility, more adult roles.

Obviously, much more could be said about the nature of children, and science has much to discover about how they grow and develop and the nature of their psychological relationships with adults. These are only my preliminary observations about the what children are.

Now, what do we do with these observations? As regular readers of my blog know, I am an advocate of non-punitive discipline, and I believe that it is the rational way to parent in accord with the nature of children.

Because they are proto-rational, not a-rational or irrational, we must teach a rational approach to problem solving. We cannot train them through rewards and punishments (behaviorism), as we would a-rational animals. We cannot be unkind to them, using retribution or a withdrawal of time or affection, assuming that they were capable of better choices, as we might an irrational adult (though I have my doubts about how appropriate that is even with adults behaving irrationally, if we want to maintain relationships with them). Instead, we must use tools that teach better behaviors while respecting the burgeoning rationality of the child.

Because children are not inherently good, we cannot expect good behavior without practice. They must learn to make the choices that lead to positive outcomes (the good), and they must learn not to make choices that harm them (the bad). We cannot expect them to know things until they have had a chance to observe adults or experience the consequences of an action first hand. We cannot be angry because they don't know how to behave - that is putting a wish before reality. No matter how much we wish children might be inherently good and make the right choices with ease, reality doesn't work that way.

Because children are not inherently bad, we cannot assume that any annoying behavior is malicious. They rarely are, in m experience, and never are in very, very young children. Their poor choices are not the result of a bad character. Children's characters are not set; they are still forming. This is why advocates of non-punitive discipline choose to assume positive intent. Instead of thinking of children as bad and needing to be straightened out, we think of them as inexperienced, acting wrongly, often because they have not connected an action to its negative consequences yet. Assuming positive intent is like being innocent until proven guilty. I assume that kids are acting with poor information and with poor judgment until I am sure there is malice or intentional irrationality in the behavior (incredibly rare, in my experience, which is limited to youngish kids).

Because children are so driven to please the adults in their lives, rewards and punishments are particularly damaging. We want children to grow towards independence, to practice this virtue along with their growing rationality, and so we should let reality teach the lessons as often as possible. A parent who rewards and punishes strengthens their child's reliance on outside judgment, rather than helping him to strengthen his reliance on his own judgment, on his own evaluation of how beneficial a behavior is to his life.

Also, because of children's natural reliance on their parents, it is very easy to manipulate children emotionally. It is very easy to convince a child that he loves soccer and hates baseball by showing him (even in subtle ways) that soccer is the better choice for him. By using our enthusiasm for our values to influence our children, we can teach them to make their own values subservient to ours. We must guard against influencing a child's values and tastes, carefully not crossing the line between expressing our own values and dictating his.

It is also important to remember that modeling virtuous behavior is the best way to teach it to children. No amount of great parenting is going to make a child do right if his parents don't do right. We can capitalize on their drive to mimic by giving them a good subject to copy.

Finally, the observation that children want to be adults and want to grow and learn to be successful helps a non-punitive parent remember to explain and problem solve instead of punishing. Since children want to succeed in reality, they are open to learning which actions lead to success and which to failure. They can often find ways to solve problems themselves (with some help in knowing what the process is) because they are motivated to learn to be like adults (again, it would really help if they see adults solving problems and improving their behavior). Their desire to grow up and succeed should fuel their desire to grow into the virtues, since the virtues are our keys to success (and parents should be demonstrating this all the time).

Okay, big post, first thoughts on this subject. I'd love feedback.

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