Child Rearing (excerpts)

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The following is an extract from the book Child Rearing by Daniel Greenberg.  The book is available at the Sudbury Valley School Press online store at:

Chapter 9 - Ages Four and Up

By age four or thereabouts, human beings have a fully developed communication system which, for all intents and purposes, makes them mature persons. They are capable of expressing themselves, of understanding what's said to them, and of structuring continuous thought; and they are capable of doing things with their environment. You could ask whether a person age four and up belongs at all in a book on childrearing, because I don't consider someone over that age to be a child. To a certain extent the subject doesn't belong here, and yet society considers people to be children until a much older age than four, and so we have to discuss this largely because society forces it on us.

I want to explain what I mean by a person over four being mature. The key element of maturity is judgment. At around four, people have at their disposal a fully developed sense of how to go about solving problems and how to go about making decisions; they have a sense of what they know and what they don't know, what kind of information they need to solve problems, and when they are out of their depth. This is very hard for people in our culture to believe about children. For some reason, most people think that judgment is developed much later. They aren't able to pinpoint exactly when --some say 13, others 16, others 18, or 21. I do not see any significant change that takes place after age four or so. When I look at a four or five or six year old making decisions, I see all the components of the judgment process that I see in a person aged forty. The process is the same, acompletely mature one, weighing the questions and the available information and the previous life experience. What does change with age is that a person gains knowledge and learning and life experience that can be called upon in making judgments. But I think you have to remember that this is a very qualitative process which goes on at all ages. A person aged fifty can have just as many difficulties solving a problem as a person aged five. A person aged fifty confronted with a new situation can feel just as helpless as a child. We have phrases for this in our language; we talk about older people confronted with difficult situations and refer to them as being "like children." Actually, the language reflects society's prejudices. What we really mean is that this is something common to any age when people are confronted with new situations, recognize their limitations, and don't have the adequate data at hand. Our prejudice is that we expect a fifty year old, confronted with the need to make hard decisions, to go about making these decisions in a certain way, and what we don't recognize adequately about four year olds is that they do exactly the same thing. There are doubtless a greater number of areas in which four or five or six year olds are inexperienced, and so they may need more help. But even that's an argument you have to be very careful about, because there is a kind of feedback mechanism here. Four and five and six year olds don't get into all that many situations which they find to be over their heads. As they grow older, they get into more and more complex situations, usually refraining from going in too deep. It's something you see at all levels of maturity. People always meet with new challenges, but they generally recognize their limitations and try not to go in over their heads. So when all is said and done, the decision-making processes of a five year old and a fifty year old are quite similar. In both cases the people involved in the process can be faced with the need for new data, realize their limitations, and be stuck. It isn't just children who are stuck and inexperienced; anybody can be, when confronted with a situation that is strange to them.

Another characteristic, other than judgment, which is often used to distinguish five year olds from fifty year olds, is learning. We often hear it said that "children still have a lot to learn." On the other hand, we have the opposite attitude toward older people, who are held to be virtually incapable of learning; "you can't teach an old horse new tricks." Actually, the human being is a learning animal throughout life, from the moment of birth until the moment of death; indeed, when a human being has stopped learning, he is essentially dead. As long as there is any brain activity, learning is possible -- which is probably true of lower animals as well. So to say that having a lot to learn is something that distinguishes younger people from older people just isn't founded on any reasonable view of human nature that I can think of.

Another distinction that people try to draw between young people and older people is that between dependence and independence. People tell their young children that they are terribly dependent, and you often hear a parent say, "As long as I have to take care of this and that, you're going to have to do what I ask, and when you're older and independent, you can do what you please." Whereas our picture of adults is that they are independent people. Again, I find this to be a very misleading distinction. If we think about it, we realize that adults too can be very dependent, for example, on their spouses or close friends. They depend on other persons for help, or to come through in times of crisis. We have ways of expressing this, such as "It's good to have friends you can count on." What we're really saying is, that for all our independence, a large part of us is still dependent upon friendship. In a much deeper sense, modern society is particularly interdependent in a lot of ways --economically, socially, ecologically. Even the people who advocate a return to nature often find themselves in an ironic dependency upon the rest of civilization to bail them out in a pinch. You can think of any number of examples. It's almost impossible to be in a position in which you are independent from the rest of society. So I think that people like to fool themselves a bit as far as this is concerned, especially when they talk to children. When adults talk among themselves, they fully realize that they are dependent upon each other and the rest of society, but the big stress on independence usually shows when they are talking to children. You can even compare the way parents talk to their children with the way they talk with each other. It's rare that a husband and wife will invoke their dependence in arguments. It's just not a usual adult frame of reference, even though they may be terribly dependent upon each other. But when children and parents argue about their differences, time and again, one of the first things that comes into the argument is "so long as you're dependent upon me, you've got to do it my way." I think it is interesting to see this double standard invoked to keep children in line.

The other part of what I want to say is that children four, five and six years old -- let alone older children -- are a lot more independent than we give them credit for. They are quite capable of thinking for themselves and understanding what is going on. In every sense, they have minds of their own. To me it is amazing how often adults do not consider children to be real people. The weirdest things happen. Adults often act in the presence of children as if they were not there, like non-entities. Things are often said and done in front of them as if they were part of the furniture. For example, there are many classic stories of doctors discussing cases in front of children who are patients as if the children were not lying there in full view, something the same doctors would not dream of doing in front of adults.

Another category that is often used to distinguish children from adults is play. People say, "children prefer to play a lot, and are not serious about life." Whereas adults supposedly do serious things. Indeed, adults are careful to label their play, so that when they decide to play, they can announce the fact, in order to separate the occasion from the rest of the time when they are being very serious. I think that there's a lot to be said on this subject. Perhaps the best place to begin is with the observation that, in less inhibited surroundings (i.e., non-starched-shirt surroundings), frolic and play is something that people engage in at all ages. For example, anthropologists frequently comment on the play they observe in so-called "primitive" tribes among adults. Of course, this is always called "child-like play" -- another instance of our language clearly reflecting our preconceived notions -- but the fact remains that mature people like to play. And the main reason for this is that play is a creative, natural kind of activity for an associative, curious, probing mind.

Sad to say, our society reveals itself in this area too. We are so hung up on programming adults into well-defined, set activities and fixed routines that we tend to squelch play in grown-ups. It's not because of their age, but because of the roles they have to assume in Western industrial culture. Often, you hear a person say about someone else he has known professionally for years, and he has happened to be with on a vacation: "I didn't realize that this person was so much fun, that he had such a light side to him." We are always amazed to observe in others what is really a natural characteristic of people of all ages, but is repressed in the daily lives of most people in our society.

In summary, many of the differences which society claims to exist between children and adults don't really exist. People aged four or so and up all have judgment, they all learn, they are all both dependent and independent in various ways, they all play, etc. I don't see any grounds for distinguishing in a qualitative manner between a person age four, five, or six and a person aged twenty or thirty. At about four, a person's body and mind have reached functional maturity, and from then on they accumulate a storehouse of experience and knowledge as they proceed along their unique path in life. Which all boils down to saying a very simple thing: that as far as we are concerned, as soon as children have reached four or so, they have to be treated like you treat any other person whom you consider an adult.

Now, you have to be careful not to draw the wrong implications from this conclusion. Thus, it would be catastrophic to deny children what is due them. All people, regardless of age, have needs which should not be overlooked. For example, all people have the need for affection. It's not the case that you have to give a lot of affection to a four or five year old, but when a person turns twenty, you can turn cold. Affection is necessary for human being all through life. So are love, warmth, and physical contact. We accept these needs in an infant, but we sort of tail off later on in life, although they are as vital to an adult as to a child aged four. The question we have to address at this point is, "How did this differentiation between ages happen in Western culture?" This question turns out to be related to another, namely, "Why do we consider adolescence to occur at such a late age in Western culture, at puberty?" The answer in both cases lies in the nature of Western civilization and its industrialized technological society.

There are many aspects to the answer and I just want to highlight a few of them in order to present the gist of the argument. One thing that has happened is that the average human life span has increased fantastically so that people live almost three times as long as they used to live up to a relatively short time ago. The resulting population explosion has led to enormously complex problems in simply providing for all these people. One technique for managing the situation is reducing job competition by lopping off both ends of the manpower spectrum. On the one hand you introduce a retirement age to get rid of older workers (although it is inherently ridiculous to associate a chronological age with the need to stop working). This has endowed us with a society full of people who are in their sixties, seventies, and older, who are capable of doing productive work and deriving satisfaction from it, but who are forced to retire and face the tedium of enforced idleness. That is how we lop off one end of the spectrum. Then we say further that a person can't enter the job market until at least fourteen years of age, preferably eighteen or older, with the preferred age of entry going up as the population increases. A hundred years ago people in large numbers began work at age eight or nine. It is often said that the age was pushed upward out of compassion for children. While this undoubtedly was a factor, I think the major reason children were removed from the job market was to keep them from competing with grownups. There just weren't enough jobs to go around, and one way to handle it was to pass child labor laws.

The end result of getting the old and the young out of the job competition has been to introduce monumental problems of old age and of youth in our society because of the large numbers of able persons who have been deprived of a productive function in their lives.

Another aspect of late adolescence stems from the fact that an industrialized society, of the kind that we have had over the last century, needs highly trained robot-like people to fit into certain places in the economy. This takes time and effort. To take a human being and turn him into a robot is something that you can't do overnight, and it is very different from training a person to a responsible role. In the old days, children started apprenticing themselves when they were still quite young; it was fairly common to see four and five year olds standing around a smithy or a weaving shop or whatever and learning the intricate tricks of the trade. Indeed, even toddlers are capable of absorbing minute details of the procedures taking place in the home - even intricate ones like how to cook, how to clean, etc. It is a mistake (that I have already discussed) to think that little children cannot be useful in complex situations. They can be. It is not the complexity that we are talking about at all. From the dawn of man little children found ways to ease themselves into complex situations gradually. Even in the most complex industrial society children aged four and up can have a vital role, can find a place of interest where they can observe and slowly master all the intricacies. It is the need to turn them into robots that takes time. It takes years to do that. There is a strong correlation between the degree of technological advancement and the length of time it takes. For example, consider science. Today, the average Ph.D in science is an uncreative robot drone who still has to go out and become a post-doctoral appointee for several years under somebody else's guidance. Usually, he doesn't begin to do his own work until he is in his thirties. That's the norm in science, a highly advanced field. Why is this the case, when a generation or two ago the norm was that people in their early twenties were doing creative work? The answer is that in earlier times there were fewer scientists. There was a small group, so everyone could relax, and there was no pressure to force scientists into a mold. Today there is a tremendous amount of competition, and a highly routinized set of tasks for scientists to perform. It is necessary nowadays to prepare them for this and for that - to prepare so many solid state physicists to service industries, and to prepare so many biologists to fight disease, etc. Science is a completely different enterprise than it used to be, and if you just let everybody do what they want, if you would give them the same freedom that they used to enjoy, most of them would be doing things that society didn't particularly want them to do. So society puts tremendous pressure on developing scientists to keep them in line, and the longer they are kept in line, the less likelihood there is that at the end of their long training they will still be independent and creative enough to break out of their pre-set mold, and the more society will be able to rely on them to stay in a rut the rest of their lives. What I have said about science holds in general: the more complex the society gets, and the more options that are open, the harder it is to mold young people into set patterns, and hence the longer it is necessary to keep them as robots, even up to an age that is way beyond what anybody considers childhood.

The question that I had set out to answer was, "Why do we have adolescence in our society through puberty and beyond?" In brief, the answer is that over the years society has required more and more time to break people in for robot-like roles, and therefore there is a delay in the period when the kinds of things associated with adolescence take place - the kinds of phenomena discussed in the last chapter, having to do with the transition from a state of dependence to a state of independence. A science post-doc goes through a period of adolescence at age thirty. Most people in our society go through their major adolescence in their late teens (rather than between one and four, when it would be normal), but they go through it again whenever they make a transition from a state of total dependence to a state of semi-independence, with all the attendant break-downs and rebellions and resentments. I think that in the kind of society that I have been advocating there won't be the phenomenon of teenage adolescence at all. Rather, all there will be is the kind of adolescence that I talked about earlier, between ages one and four, where the really significant life changes take place on the road to personal independence. But this can only happen in a society which has no need for the kind of robot-like training that now takes place.

I want to say a few final words about the role of a person age four and up in the family. I've assumed that a child up to age four is the object of care and attention, as is due to a developing member of the family. It seems to me fairly obvious that once children have reached the age of four or five they become adults to all intents and purposes and can take a full role in the family, a full share of the family responsibilities. Now what their share will be depends on any given family, but they have every right and expectation to be treated just like everybody else. That means, on the one hand, they have got to carry their weight and find ways to contribute to doing the family chores, and on the other hand they have got to be given all the consideration that all the other members of the family are given in serious decision making. The part about carrying their weight is not really very difficult to conceive, because in rural families and in other cultures this takes place all the time. It is fairly common that youths age five or six draw the water and feed the animals and milk the cows. There is absolutely no reason why they can't do normal things about the house; it doesn't mean they have to be able to do everything. It doesn't mean they have to be able to cook, for example, - after all, in most families not all the adults can cook. Nobody says that all members of a family have to be interchangeable parts. But it is clear to me that once children have reached the age of judgment, there has to be some way for them to carry their weight. The other side of that coin is something that is harder to conceive in our society - namely, that the same child has to have a full voice in the decision making in the family. That is extremely difficult to carry out in our male-dominated patriarchal society where usually the only person who really makes decisions in the family is the father, and ninety-nine times out of a hundred he doesn't even consider the opinion of his wife, let alone his children. Even in families where both spouses share decision making, it is very rare to find the children consulted on major decisions. I find this state of affairs to be a complete anachronism and I do not see how it can maintain itself much longer.

Another consequence of this view is that children in principle ought to have the same mobility that the adult members of the family have. We restrict the mobility of children all the time in our society. The idea that children can regulate their time and their mobility like adults is one that we are going to have to learn to accept. I think that the realization that children are full-fledged members of the family is going to come soon after the realization that the woman is a full-fledged member of the family. In this respect, women are going to do a lot of the work for children. The major thing to break is the adult male dominance in the home. To be sure, once you break that, it doesn't automatically follow that children are going to get a full share, but at least it is going to be a lot easier for other legitimate contenders to stake their claims. I think we will see more and more families in which the adults have equal voices in decision making, and we will see many such families accommodate themselves in giving the children a full voice in family affairs more frequently than families in which the male is supreme.

In a sense this has been an anomalous chapter in a book on childrearing, with the message that from about age four and up you have simply got to treat children as adults and stop treating them as "children." There should be no distinction between your fundamental attitude toward a family member five years old and toward one thirty five years old.

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