Children Are Only Human
Throughout history, there have been certain groups of people whose humanity and rights have been undermined by ideas that stereotyped and denigrated them as a group. In our culture, children fall into that category.
This has been the case with black people, for example. Some of the false ideas about skin color were so tenacious that we still see them surviving in racism today. False ideas tended to be of different kinds: There were the most obviously racist notions that blatantly doubted that black people were as intelligent or even as human as white people; then there were condescending ideas that infan- tilized black people, casting them as “too child-like” or “primitive” to warrant self determination, which all too conveniently allowed white people to claim that it was in other races’ best interests to be ruled over. Then there are slightly more subtle, but still pernicious, ideas that romanticized black people, calling them “noble savages” while ensuring that they were kept segregated so that white people could point to a fantasy world unsullied by the progress.
It isn’t only race that has attracted a great deal of destructive stereotyping; women have suffered from similar false ideas.
More and more in liberal societies, these ideas have been challenged and, despite the surviving legacy of racism and sexism, everyone’s humanity and individuality is, at best, recognized and respected. We can recognize the talents of a black musician without having to believe that every black person has some mystically innate sense of rhythm; we can support a woman’s decision to be a stay-at-home mother without having to believe that education is wasted on women. Increasingly, we understand that human identity is complex and multiple; one person has a range of roles and relationships that interact to make her the unique person that she is.
This emergingly complex view of real people is to be applauded, but it sometimes seems that when it comes to children we are still uneasy about such individuality.
As people who swim against the tide in terms of education, traditional parenting and lifestyle, we are much more likely to encounter children who are used to, and benefit from, being seen as unique individuals. In the world at large, however, children are still much more likely to be categorized and stereotyped as a group than any adult population, and not merely by extremists. Children are routinely lumped together and written off in various derogatory ways and, even though we are making different choices in our parenting and education, rarely are families completely able to escape the pressures of the mainstream.
I don’t want to be so simplistic as to argue that children are the last oppressed minority. Children, like everyone else in Western-style democracies, have gained a great deal from being alive today. At this point in history, children are more likely than ever before to be seen as individuals; but there are certainly forces that oppose this. In the cultures that many of us inhabit, parenting ideas persist which fundamentally undermine any wholesale acceptance of children as full human beings, just as false ideas have worked against other swathes of humanity on the basis of color or gender. In particular, there are four groups of ideas that are still alive and well and that are stereotyping our children to their detriment.
Firstly, there is the notion that children are born bad, can’t be trusted and must be civilized. It may be that this originates with a particular interpretation of a religious idea, but it is culturally powerful and widespread. Bookstores abound with parenting titles like the best-selling Toddler Taming, revealing just how deeply rooted the idea of naturally “bad” children is rooted in popular thinking. I believe this idea needs to be challenged if we are to accept children as individuals.
Even among those who would not go so far as to
claim that children are inherently bad, there is often an assumption
that children’s lack of experience in life renders them somehow a lesser
species, unable to know what’s good for them, unable to respond to
reason. This type of “common sense” is very often not sense at all, just
the residue of the bad ideas we had foisted on us when we were children,
to paraphrase Einstein.
A second variant of ideas that undermine our children’s humanity sounds, on the face of it, to be a much more positive view of children. In this notion, children are closer to nature, pure, sometimes almost other-worldly. But, sadly, this view isn’t helpful because it just as surely renders children who are romanticized stereotypes rather than real, unique individuals. Such “perfect” children don’t eat sugar, watch TV, or play with plastic guns. Like women before them, children afflicted by this crippling idea find that a pedestal is a very small space to have to stand on.
Of course, many people don’t think that children are born “bad”, nor do they romanticize children and chain them to the pedestal. Instead, they fall into the trap of picking out particular groups or types of children to distrust automatically. This more specific form of distrust easily becomes a rationale for control. So, for example, boys might be singled out as having particular natures that require particular solutions regardless of the individual. Others target children who are labeled as “hyperactive” or as having specific learning styles (usually turned into learning problems or even pathologies). In such cases, it is all too common to hear that reasonable nego- tiation and problem solving don’t help.
While pressure groups and increasingly enlightened thinking extends more and more human dignity to vulnerable groups like Alzheimer’s patients, geriatric patients, disabled people etc., there are certain groups of children whose chances of being treated seriously as individuals are considerably worsening. The rash of forcibly medicated children ostensibly suffering from ADHD is a prime example, but similar memes are at work whenever certain children are lumped together as a stereotypical group to be treated according to some formula.
How we parent ultimately depends on how we view children. If we think that children are born bad or rebellious, that they are closer to nature, that boys are a separate species enslaved by testosterone, or that some children can only be made to fit by being radically altered with therapy or drugs, then we will respond to them according to those assumptions. And we will tend to live in self-fulfilling vicious cycles where what we think is what we get. After all, we always tend to see what we are looking for and in any case we will fail to see how compulsion is causing the damage we observe.
Children are born human. They don’t come with in-built evil. They are simply limited and ordinary, just like adults. But they are equally unique and special, just like adults. Since they are individuals, they will challenge some of our dearest assumptions. However, that is not a sign that they need to be controlled and made to obey, but an invitation to interact positively and openly.
We don’t need to value obedience above the ability to think any more than we need to see human nature as innately self-destructive. Human nature is inquisitive and creative. And we need to engage with it as such in order to nurture the individual child, responding not to a stereotypical, static and romanticized notion of what a child should be but rather to a unique young person.
Moreover, we need to guard that individuality even when – or perhaps especially when – society would like to hand us a label for a particular child. Does it really help to relate to our children through stereotypical constructs of what it means to be a “girl” or “hyperactive” or is it more helpful to simply relate to that special individual?
We live in complex times and the urge to find some
simplicity is a good one – and often part of the package of seeking to
parent and educate differently. But in the case of relating to our
children, the adage of “keep it simple” can’t mean finding a
one-size-fits-all way to relate to children, or to boys or to young
people with dyslexia. It has to mean encountering every child for who he
or she is – changing, complex, more than the sum of any labels that we
can think of, only human and yet profoundly exceptional. Simply,