Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Children and Philosophy

I regularly read the Solon advice column, "Dear Cary". It's a good column, and it happens to usually post when I'm flipping through the news on my smart phone while waiting for the buses to arrive each morning.

Today, however, I was very frustrated with the response and I was motivated to write a response to the writer. Man, I know it's been a crazy long time since I posted. I'm hoping to get back into a weekly posting habit after I finish this job in November. But I was really happy with my response to this article (which can be viewed here) and wanted to share it, if only for the sake of documenting and preserving it.

Check out the link if you want to know the context of the response in detail. But I feel like my philosophy more or less stands on its own out of context as well.


"Dear Cary,

    I have never much been one for reading advice columns. However, over the past several months I have had a daily ritual of reading your column on my smart phone every morning while waiting for the buses full of students to arrive. I find your writing style, your views, and your particular brand of wisdom to be very appealing and insightful, and I am frequently impressed by the angle you take to the issues you are presented with.

    But this morning I was deeply disappointed by your response. I felt you missed the mark, severely. I'm certain that being in the position of writing an advice column is very difficult, people expecting you to have the answers to everything. And as no human is infallible, it's understandable that you may make a mistake from time to time. Out of my deep respect for you, and for the wisdom you so clearly posses, I feel motivated to formally write to you and express my thoughts as to why your response to this was so very wrong.

    Near the end of your letter, you suggest to the person that this is an opportunity for him/her to address some issues, to learn and grow, to overcome their strict and stifled upbringing. You essentially are suggesting that the issue they are having with the child is a matter of personal baggage. Ironically, I feel as if your response is a matter of your personal baggage. I wonder if you must have had an unfairly strict upbringing. I wonder if you felt stifled and overly controlled, and have regrets wishing you had had more freedom as a kid. It seems to me that you use this letter to get on a bit of a soap box, something I have never seen you do before, and preach about abstract issues with the world. I find this somewhat baffling.

    I teach English to children in Korea. Korea is very strict by American standards, something I have had difficulty adjusting to here. My kindergartners are forced to sit for hours, to write in text books, study English phonetics, study grammatical structures, sit nicely and quietly, and many of them are only 5 years old. I'm sure you are appalled by this, and I am too at times. They are being denied the childhood that I feel they deserve. I have quite a bit of perspective on what unfair expectations of children looks like. I try to find little ways to give them freedom, to let them play, to allow them to explore and express their energy. But I am employed by a system that has certain expectations of me, and I have little choice but to meet those expectations.

    I have done quite a bit of philosophizing over the past year of what it means to be a child, of the role of childhood, of the arc of a human life. I have done a lot of thinking of why some children act this way, and others this other way. I have contemplated nature vs. nurture to deeper levels then I ever imagined I would. So please allow me to share some of my thoughts with you.

    You speak of the anarchy of childhood. I have witnessed this a great deal. You speak of it as a good thing. I don't entirely disagree. It is a time of exploration, of testing boundaries, of experimentation. Anarchy, freedom, is certainly necessary for this. But the point of such experimentation, the purpose of testing boundaries, is to learn, to discover what is acceptable and what is not. It seems by your response that you are suggesting that this should be carried on without the supervision and guidance of adults. What, then, is our role? To just stand back and let them do as they will, discover only what they choose to without offering our own wisdom and experience? That seems like a bizarre perspective from someone in the business of giving advice.

    You see, anarchy has this little problem of encouraging self centered view points. In a micro-society without rules, social Darwinism is the only law that prevails. The strongest and most able children will succeed, will be the most popular, will take control of the group, while the "weaker" ones are marginalized, made fun of, and convinced that they are unworthy of happiness and love. I have witnessed this behavior, and it begins very early. It is part of our own long story of evolution. It is the animalistic side of humanity, the most primal aspect of our psyche, and is the default state that we all exist in. Without any structure, guidance, or discipline, it is the mentality that will prevail, because it is the mentality that is most easily and naturally discovered and expressed. Children who are permitted to exist within this mentality will grow into adults with this mentality. And it is this mentality, I think you will agree, that is causing many of the ills of this world, some of which you mentioned in your response, ills such as poverty.

    It is empathy, you see, which is the most fundamental and necessary quality for humans to possess in modern society. It is empathy alone that moves us away from this animalistic, self serving nature, towards a dynamic of sharing and caring. It is empathy that will allow us to conquer and and solve the worlds ills. It is empathy that must now become an intrinsically important aspect of our evolution, if we desire to ever leave this era of strife and suffering.

    And in many cases, empathy must be taught. I certainly have some students that show a more natural disposition towards empathy than others. But I have not encountered a single student incapable of learning it. When I first took over my current 5 year old class, Danny was a bit of a "brat". That is to say, he was self centered, unsympathetic, fixated on being the best, on receiving attention and praise, and in general on being the best. He would rub his success in the faces of the other students, and he would cry, loudly and obnoxiously, over his failures. It was not his fault. He was spoiled. His parents told him he was the most important person in the world. They bought him anything he wanted. He couldn't help but respond to this in the most natural human way. I made Danny my special project. I ignored his attention seeking behaviors. When he did something good because he was trying to be seen doing something good, I didn't praise him. When he did something good when he didn't think I was looking I would reward him. When he shouted and screamed for me to call on him I pretended I didn't see him. When he sat nicely and raised his hand, I gave him every opportunity for him to show how smart he was.

   Recently we took a field trip out to a farm to pick chestnuts. It was great fun. The students had plastic bags and they got to run around the forest collecting chestnuts to bring home. Danny, being quick and agile, was able to collect a great many chestnuts. His bag was more full than any other student. Aiden is a bit clumsy, not so smart all the time, awkward, and insecure. He only had about 10 chestnuts. Danny didn't know I was watching, but I saw him go over to Aiden, reach in his bag, and give Aiden two big handfuls of chestnuts. That is not a behavior that he would have ever exhibited a year ago when I started. That is the kind of behavior I have worked hard, and used some degree of discipline, to encourage. That is empathy, true and genuine.

   The child in the story you responded to lacks empathy, completely and utterly. From the letter you received, I believe that that is because the child lacks discipline, completely and utterly. I absolutely agree with you, that children need freedom, they need to run, they need to play, they need to explore and express. But they also need to be given boundaries. They need to be told what isn't OK in the cases when the result of their behavior doesn't immediately provide them with the necessary demonstrations of how and why their behavior is inappropriate.

   The path from childhood to adulthood is a spectrum, not a point. We are slowly given more responsibilities, and with responsibility comes privilege. When we are young we do not have to be responsible for money, but we do not have the privilege of buying what we choose. One of the first responsibilities we need to learn is the responsibility of being respectful and kind to those around us. This responsibility presents us with the privilege of being liked, loved, and cared for. At 11 years old, this child is far past due to take on such a responsibility. One of the issues I take with your response is that you treat childhood like a state that is, itself, not evolving, as if at some point someone is considered to be a child who should be allowed to exist in complete anarchy, and at another point they become an adult. How does one get from one state to the other, and when? A 17 year old is legally not an adult. So a 17 year old can hit and scream and cry, and on their 18th birthday they now need to be an adult? How does one get from childhood to adulthood if inappropriate behavior is never shown to be inappropriate?

   My parents generation, the Baby-boomers, where in many cases brought up in unfairly strict environments. Perhaps you were such an individual, and it strongly flavored your response to this letter. Yet I believe that many of my parents generation reacted to their own overly strict upbringing by going to far in the other direction of lack of discipline with their own children. I believe that my generation, as a result, has been slightly more prone to self-centeredness overall. I imagine that my generation will respond by being a bit overly strict with their kids, who will respond by being slightly overly lax with theirs, etc. and over the course of a century or two we will oscillate back and forth, a little less extreme each time, until we finally discover and settle on that happy balanced point. That is my idealistic vision anyway.

    In any case, it was simply my desire to share my perspective with you. I hope that you can view it objectively.

         -Disappointed but Still Appreciative of Your Wisdom"

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