Pity the Children

March 11, 2006

We treat our children badly in civilisation, bad enough to need a strong system of beliefs about child ‘rearing’ to keep the denial in operation.

People think kids are born bad because they have to spend so much time ‘training’ them not to indulge in bad behaviour but it’s my belief that most of this stuff is actually learned from their parents. People in our society have the (often) sub conscious view that children are of little consequence (which should be no surprise in a hierarchical society). Generally speaking we treat them with a great deal of disrespect. Then we turn around and punish them for copying our attitude when they’re cruel to someone else.

Children are always on the look out for clues about how they should be, it’s why my little girl mimics the things I do – often with hilarious outcomes. Probably what we are most in denial about is that we are the most significant role-models our children will ever have.

I discovered to my horror that my little girl learned to snatch from me and now I can’t figure out how to stop her snatching things off our 1 year old – at least not without applying coercion that is.

Ever hear children being unbelievably bossy to their younger siblings? – no prizes for guessing where they learnt that from either. It’s straight out mimicry, from the word’s used through to the tone and the body language. My daughter even tries to imitate the depth of my voice when she wants to tell someone off. You’ll also find that this learning will still be with you when you become parents, all sorts of surprising things will come out in stressful situations!

Looking back I can see how the early years of my adult life have been spent unlearning behaviours learnt as a child. I have had to learn to be more patient, to take account of other people’s feelings, to control my anger, to control my jealousy, to give people time to figure stuff out for themselves and generally to learn to be gentle. Most of these misbehaviours were modelled to me by the adults in my life. This is not to indict my parents though – children of civilisation themselves they at least were able to model things like active compassion to me which is more than a lot of people got. What’s important to remember is that there are cultures in the world where the children aren’t saddled with this additional burden when growing up.

Interestingly, to this day I cannot tell a decent joke. I always tell it way too fast, desperate to get it out before my listener leaves the room. On the other hand I’m good at rapid-fire wise cracks where speed is a major component of the humour. Unbelievably it was my wife who pointed out to me, just a few months ago, that my father often leaves the room while people are talking to him – completely focused, as he is, on the next ‘important’ thing in his life.

Even worse is the rationalisation we have for the discipline side of child rearing. First of all though, I should say that I don’t think children need ‘rearing’ and also that discipline is something that can only be modelled not ‘instilled’. More importantly, I think these concepts are an excuse to mistreat children. It’s universal throughout our culture but I’ll use conservative Christians as an example since their language is much more explicit. (I loved writing that sentence!). To address the big picture and place blame where it belongs, a child left to direct their own childhood will not be much use to civilisation – they’ll be happy, well balanced and compassionate and civilisation can’t use people like that. By implication we obviously believe that raising a happy child is only a secondary goal of child rearing.

Children are born in sin say conservative Christians and then point to a misbehaving child as evidence. Unfortunately I think this is a misreading. Born in sin doesn’t mean born sinful – it means born into sin – or more specifically not ‘born in blessing’ (the blessing of Eden). If anything it means we are the sinful ones not the child. Only a moron would say a new born is inherently sinful. Children are open to temptation in a way that adults are not – for sure – but outside of temptation all of their naughty behaviour can be attributed to us, their parents.

Before we had children I went with my wife to a parenting evening at a church where we were introduced to the concept of the ‘V of love’. Essentially this concept was about the fact that we have total control over our baby when it is born and we gradually reduce our level of control until they are adults and they leave home. Even more essentially though, this theory was a rationale to control and coerce children. It should, more accurately, have been called the ‘V of control’. I don’t want to come down too hard on this because I use these techniques in moments of (daily) desperation but the guy giving the advice justified it by saying that kids are sinful – after all he said, he was witness to all manner of sinful behaviours that his little boy did on a daily basis.

I’m sure he was telling the truth. Christians are the least radical group in our society and I have no doubt that he treated his child the way most people in western civilisation do – which is to say he used detachment parenting. (That’s not actually a term, but it comes from ‘attachment parenting’ which grew out of a response to conventional child treatment). A newborn baby is left to cry itself to sleep every night of the first weeks of it’s life, left to cry until it’s heart is broken and it gives up. A new born baby receives a traumatic birth in hospital. A new born baby is left to ‘cry it out’ so that it learns that it can’t control the parents. That’s detachment parenting. Attachment parenting is the opposite, it’s co-sleeping with the baby and responding to it’s cries – maybe even responding before it cries.

Having decided to co-sleep with our baby before it was born it seemed the most natural thing to do and now I can’t understand how people could treat their precious little baby any differently. Once you choose this path you move away from hardening your heart to the needs of your children and you move away from mainstream thoughts on these matters. How anyone thinks a new born baby has the intellectual development to want to control it’s parents is totally beyond me these days but it’s a common assumption. It’s simple damn it – if the baby cries it means it needs your help. In other cultures babies are hardly ever heard crying. In our culture, if the baby isn’t crying it mean’s it’s learned to walk and has left the building.

The sinful behaviour that people witness in their toddlers is the acting-out of injustice, it might be the injustice of being separated from the mother, or the multitude of unjust rules we apply to them. Typically we try to prevent the child from expressing these feelings, thereby creating further injustice as well as storing up these feelings for a time it’s safe to let them our. A safe place might include with some kind of pychotherapist but will more likely be when we have acquired a position of power and have subordinates to boss around.

Our list of subordinates can and usually does include children.

We know that to ignore the needs of another adult is an unkind thing to do but we seem to be of the opinion that children are unaffected by having their feelings ignored. The reality is that, lacking maturity and life experience, they are less able to deal with personal injustice than we are. It’s a triumph of denial that we can’t see this crucial fact.

Pity the children – and pity the world that they inherit.

Lastly and most importantly, I don’t want this to be an attack on parents who haven’t managed to develop a gentler style of parenting. The truth is I fail miserably in this area – and I had the advantage of trying to develop a few idea about how we would parent before our first child was born. It’s even harder to make changes mid-stream.

A child is meant to be raised by a village. Two parents alone can not do the job. I also don’t want childless people to come away from this being judgemental (as I used to be). The next time you see a parent being unfair to a child, remember it’s happening because the parent’s are struggling. They need our help, not our judgement.


One comment

  1. Thanks for that. We need more advocates for children. Best wishes for you and your daughter.

    Posted by: Devin | 03/11/2006

    I know I’m a little late on this, but great post, I’ve been meaning to come back and read it in full for a while.

    It scares me how most parents can see the most innocent of behaviours as “bad behaviour”. A baby is screaming whilst being pushed around a supermarket – a nice example. This is a child who needs an integrated surrounding environment, with other sentient beings to interact with. Strapping it up in artificial clothes, and then strapping it to a chair and wheeling it around an artificial consumer hellhole is just….

    normal. *sigh*

    Posted by: Dan | 04/14/2006

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