Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Children are Nasty, Uncontrollable, and Feral?

"I'm ashamed to admit it, but I really can't stand children." It's a sentiment I've occasionally encountered upon informing a stranger of the work I do. It always rocks me back on my heels a bit, given that I'm most often surrounded by people who find the company of young children to be preferable to that of their peers.

All adults have theories about children, even those who spend little time with them. After all, in one form or another, we were all once children, so, at a minimum we have those years of experience from which to cobble together our theories about what a child is, does, wants, and needs. A few consider children to be nasty, uncontrollable, hopelessly feral things that will one day, fingers crossed, outgrow it. It's as if they conceive childhood as some sort of larval stage during which these pre-humans feed themselves voraciously of the precious leaves of life before they pupate (perhaps within the chrysalis of university) emerging finally as adults.

As long as they are not cruel to children, I tend to respect these people even as I disagree with them. Their theories cause them to largely avoid children, especially young children, standing aloof in their presence, ignoring them if at all possible. They tend to choose professions and habitations far removed from where children play and when they are compelled to interact with them they do so as if they are little adults, not speaking down to them, employing their full vocabulary, not caring really if these ignorant children comprehend, not even expecting them to respond, at least not in a "rational" manner. Children confound them and, because of their theories, they lack the prying curiosity that attends so many of the interactions children have with other adults.

In most circumstances, children ignore and avoid these adults in return, not out of any sort of animosity, but simply because the indifference is mutual. Quite often, however, young children love, from afar, these adults and not only because they don't pepper them with the usual questions about what they want to be when they grow up and their favorite subject in school. They appreciate that they aren't talked down to or coddled. Their cheeks are not pinched and their heads are not patted. In other words, they perceive they are not being treated as children, but rather as people. And so long as this adult with the mis-guided theory about children isn't outright mean to them, they often find this treatment refreshing. 

It should also be mentioned that adults who harbor this brand of theory about children, should they be offended or harmed by a child, are unlikely to punish, correct, or scold them, but rather respond by giving them, at most, a few pointed words of disapproval, before turning their backs, the way they would with a wayward adult over whom they have no authority other than their dignity. 

These adults don't "understand" children and so their interactions with them tend to be free of the urge that so many of us have to help or teach or otherwise better them. This is why I respect them.

You see, most children, most of the time, spend their days among adults whose theories about children are constructed on cuteness, naiveté, and ignorance. These adults, with the best of intentions, no doubt, tend to talk down to children in high-pitched sing-song voices reserved only for children and pets. These adults loooooove children, petting and pampering them, which is all well and good, but it too often comes with these notions of helping, teaching, correcting, and generally behaving as if this theoretical child cannot function without constant intervention from loving adults.

John Holt wrote: "It is condescending when we respond to qualities that enable us to feel superior to the child. It is sentimental when we respond to qualities that do not exist in the child but only in some vision or theory that we have about children." In his book Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior, anthropologist Christopher Boehm, based on 339 fieldwork studies, concluded that our hunter-gatherer ancestors "are universally -- and all but obsessively -- concerned with being free from the authority of others." Indeed, we have evolved as a species to resist the imposition of hierarchy, even when it comes to interactions between adults and children. Too often, those of us who claim to love children do so, at least in part, because we like the feeling of being superior. We help, teach, and correct these theoretical children "for their own good," not because they have asked us to help, teach or correct them, but because we feel it is our right (which is often mis-framed as a responsibility).

The truth is that children are nasty, uncontrollable, and feral. They are also cute, naive, and ignorant. All of us are. None of these traits proposed by our theories are the exclusive domain of childhood or adulthood. In the end, there is no such thing as a theoretical child and none of our theories are correct. Or rather, none of them are entirely correct which is why I often prefer the approach taken by the "I really can't stand children" crowd. There may be something horribly broken within these adults, but to the degree it allows them to leave the kids alone, to not not impose their unsolicited help, teaching, or correction upon them, and to not assume the posture of superiority, is the degree to which their seemingly anti-child stance really is for their own good. 


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"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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