Monday 30 January 2017

On Seeing Children as "Cute"

by John Holt

We should try to get out of the habit of seeing little children as cute. By this I mean that we should try to be more aware of what it is in children to which we respond and to tell which responses are authentic, respectful, and life-enhancing, and which are condescending or sentimental. Our response to a child is authentic when we are responding to qualities in the child that are not only real but valuable human qualities we would be glad to find in someone of any age. 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 responding to children as cute, we are responding to many qualities that rightly, as if by healthy instinct, appeal to us. Children tend to be, among other things, healthy, energetic, quick, vital, vivacious, enthusiastic, resourceful, intelligent, intense, passionate, hopeful, trustful, and forgiving - they get very angry but do not, like us, bear grudges for long. Above all, they have a great capacity for delight, joy, and sorrow. But we should not think of these qualities or virtues as "childish," the exclusive property of children. They are human qualities. We are wise to value them in people of all ages. When we think of these qualities as childish, belonging only to children, we invalidate them, make them seem things we should "outgrow" as we grow older. Thus we excuse ourselves for carelessly losing what we should have done our best to keep. Worse yet, we teach the children this lesson; most of the bright and successful ten-year-olds I have known, though they still kept the curiosity of their younger years, had learned to be ashamed of it and hide it. Only "little kids" went around all the time asking silly questions. To be grown-up was to be cool, impassive, unconcerned, untouched, invulnerable. Perhaps women are taught to feel this way less than men; perhaps custom gives them a somewhat greater license to be childlike, which they should take care not to lose.
But though we may respond authentically to many qualities of children, we too often respond either condescendingly or sentimentally to many others - condescendingly to their littleness, weakness, clumsiness, ignorance, inexperience, incompetence, helplessness, dependency, immoderation, and lack of any sense of time or proportion; and sentimentally to made-up notions about their happiness, carefreeness, innocence, purity, nonsexuality, goodness, spirituality, and wisdom. These notions are mostly nonsense. Children are not particularly happy or carefree; they have as many worries and fears as many adults, often the same ones. What makes them seem happy is their energy and curiosity, their involvement with life; they do not waste much time in brooding. Children are the farthest thing in the world from spiritual. They are not abstract, but concrete. They are animals and sensualists; to them, what feels good isgood. They are self-absorbed and selfish. They have very little ability to put themselves in another person's shoes, to imagine how he feels. This often makes them inconsiderate and sometimes cruel, but whether they are kind or cruel, generous or greedy, they are always so on impulse rather than by plan or principle. They are barbarians, primitives, about whom we are also often sentimental. Some of the things (which are not school subjects and can't be "taught") that children don't know, but only learn in time and from living, are things they will be better for knowing. Growing up and growing older are not always or only or necessarily a decline and a defeat. Some of the understanding and wisdom that can come with time is real - which is why children are attracted by the natural authority of any adults who do respond authentically and respectfully to them.
One afternoon I was with several hundred people in an auditorium of a junior college when we heard outside the building the passionate wail of a small child. Almost everyone smiled, chuckled, or laughed. Perhaps there was something legitimately comic in the fact that one child should, without even trying, be able to interrupt the supposedly important thoughts and words of all these adults. But beyond this was something else, the belief that the feelings, pains, and passions of children were not real, not to be taken seriously. If we had heard outside the building the voice of an adult crying in pain, anger, or sorrow, we would not have smiled or laughed but would have been frozen in wonder and terror. Most of the time, when it is not an unwanted distraction, or a nuisance, the crying of children strikes us as funny. We think, there they go again, isn't it something the way children cry, they cry about almost anything. But there is nothing funny about children's crying. Until he has learned from adults to exploit his childishness and cuteness, a small child does not cry for trivial reasons but out of need, fear, or pain.
Once, coming into an airport, I saw just ahead of me a girl of about seven or eight. Hurrying up the carpeted ramp, she tripped and fell down. She did not hurt herself but quickly picked herself up and walked on. But looking around on everyone's face I saw indulgent smiles, expressions of "isn't that cute?" They would not have thought it funny or cute if an adult had fallen down but would have worried about his pain and embarrassment.
The trouble with sentimentality, and the reason why it always leads to callousness and cruelty, is that it is abstract and unreal. We look at the lives and concerns and troubles of children as we might look at actors on a stage, a comedy as long as it does not become a nuisance. And so, since their feelings and their pain are neither serious nor real, any pain we may cause them is not real either. In any conflict of interest with us, they must give way; only our needs are real. Thus when an adult wants for his own pleasure to hug and kiss a child for whom his embrace is unpleasant or terrifying, we easily say that the child's unreal feelings don't count, it is only the adult's real needs that count. People who treat children like living dolls when they are feeling good may treat them like unliving dolls when they are feeling bad. "Little angels" quickly become "little devils."
Even in those happy families in which the children are not jealous of each other, not competing for a scarce supply of attention and approval, but are more or less good friends, they don't think of each other as cute and are not sentimental about children littler than they are. Bigger children in happy families may be very tender and careful toward the little ones. But such older children do not tell themselves and would not believe stories about the purity and goodness of the smaller child. They know very well that the young child is littler, clumsier, more ignorant, more in need of help, and much of the time more unreasonable and troublesome. Because children do not think of each other as cute, they often seem to be harder on each other than we think we would be. They are blunt and unsparing. But on the whole this frankness, which accepts the other as a complete person, even if one not always or altogether admired, is less harmful to the children than the way many adults deal with them.

Much of what we respond to in children as cute is not strength or virtue, real or imagined, but weakness, a quality which gives us power over them or helps us to feel superior. Thus we think they are cute partly because they are little. But what is cute about being little? Children understand this very well. They are not at all sentimental about their own littleness. They would rather be big than little, and they want to get big as soon as they can.
How would we feel about children, react to them, deal with them, if they reached their full size in the first two or three years of their lives? We would not be able to go on using them as love objects or slaves or property. We would have no interest in keeping them helpless, dependent, babyish. Since they were grown-up physically, we would want them to grow up in other ways. On their part, they would want to become free, active, independent, and responsible as fast as they could, and since they were full-sized and could not be used any longer as living dolls or super-pets we would do all we could do to help them do so.

Or suppose that people varied in size as much as dogs, with normal adults anywhere from one foot to seven feet tall. We would not then think of the littleness of children as something that was cute. It would simply be a condition, like being bald or hairy, fat or thin. That someone was little would not be a signal for us to experience certain feelings or make important judgments about his character or the kinds of relationships we might have with him.
Another quality of children that makes us think they are cute, makes us smile or get misty-eyed, is their "innocence." What do we mean by this? In part we mean only that they are ignorant and inexperienced. But ignorance is not a blessing, it is a misfortune.

Children are no more sentimental about their ignorance than they are about their size. They want to escape their ignorance, to know what's going on, and we should be glad to help them escape it if they ask us and if we can. But by the innocence of children we mean something more - their hopefulness, trustfulness, confidence, their feeling that the world is open to them, that life has many possibilities, that what they don't know they can find out, what they can't do they can learn to do. These are qualities valuable in everyone. When we call them "innocence" and ascribe them only to children, as if they were too dumb to know any better, we are only trying to excuse our own hopelessness and despair.

Some infants who were just learning to walk. I used to think their clumsiness, their uncertain balance and wandering course, were cute. Now I tried to watch in a different spirit. For there is nothing cute about clumsiness, any more than littleness. Any adult who found it as hard to walk as a small child, and who did it so badly, would be called severely handicapped. We certainly would not smile, chuckle, and laugh at his efforts - and congratulate ourselves for doing so. Watching the children, I thought of this. And I reminded myself, as I often do when I see a very small child intent and absorbed in what he is doing and I am tempted to think of him as cute, "That child isn't trying to be cute; he doesn't see himself as cute; and he doesn't want to be seen as cute. He is as serious about what he is doing now as any human being can be, and he wants to be taken seriously."
But there is something very appealing and exciting about watching children just learning to walk. They do it so badly, it is so clearly difficult, and in the child's terms may even be dangerous. We know it won't hurt him to fall down, but he can't be sure of that and in any case doesn't like it. Most adults, even many older children, would instantly stop trying to do anything that they did as badly as a new walker does his walking. But the infant keeps on. He is so determined, he is working so hard, and he is so excited; his learning to walk is not just an effort and struggle but a joyous adventure. As I watch this adventure, no less a miracle because we all did it, I try to respond to the child's determination, courage, and pleasure, not his littleness, feebleness, and incompetence. To whatever voice in me says, "Oh, wouldn't it be nice to pick up that dear little child and give him a big hug and kiss," I reply, "No, no, no, that child doesn't want to be picked up, hugged, and kissed, he wants to walk. He doesn't know or care whether I like it or not, he is not walking for the approval or happiness of me or even for his parents beside him, but for himself. It is his show. Don't try to turn him into an actor in your show. Leave him alone to get on with his work."
We often think children are most cute when they are most intent and serious about what they are doing. In our minds we say to the child, "You think that what you are doing is important; we know it's not; like everything else in your life that you take seriously, it is trivial." We smile tenderly at the child carefully patting his mud pie. We feel that mud pie is not serious and all the work he is putting into it is a waste (though we may tell him in a honey-dearie voice that it is a beautiful mud pie). But he doesn't know that; in his ignorance he is just as serious as if he were doing something important. How satisfying for us to feel we know better.

We tend to think that children are most cute when they are openly displaying their ignorance and incompetence. We value their dependency and helplessness. They are help objects as well as love objects. Children acting really competently and intelligently do not usually strike us as cute. They are as likely to puzzle and threaten us. We don't like to see a child acting in a way that makes it impossible for us to look down on him or to suppose that he depends on our help.

Children do not like being incompetent any more than they like being ignorant. They want to learn how to do, and do well, the things they see being done by the bigger people around them.

Thursday 19 January 2017

Creating a Peaceful World through Peaceful Parenting

Nurturing Compassion from the Beginning
by Jan and Jason Hunt 
"If we are to reach real peace in this world and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with children. And if they will grow up in their natural innocence, we won't have the struggle, we won't have to pass fruitless idle resolutions, but we shall go from love to love and peace to peace, until at last all the corners of the world are covered with that peace and love for which, consciously or unconsciously, the whole world is hungering." - Mahatma Gandhi
We all hunger for peace. Yet far too often this seems to be just a dream, hopelessly out of reach. Instead of the peaceful life we all want, we have strife in our families, in our communities, and between our nations. We lose hope of anything better, and begin to think that nothing will ever change. Our dream of peace remains elusive.
This is a hard dream to relinquish, because it began at birth. Every infant beams when there is peace in the home, and looks perplexed and cries when there is not. To an infant, conflict is a puzzle. As infants, we not only want everyone to get along, we expect it. We are born expecting peace. Even as adults, we are shocked and saddened by every new story of brutality. We still believe that life can and should be peaceful. But we know that each day, in far too many places, there will be conflict, fighting, killing, and even war. If we are all peace lovers in our infancy, what makes us so divisive in adulthood? What goes wrong? How can it be fixed?
We wake each morning with the hope that things will change, but every day there is another sad and shocking story. We are all bewildered, and want to understand what went wrong. It seems to be human nature to focus on the most recent events, not those further back in time. So we wonder what could have been done on the days before a tragedy that might have prevented it. What last-minute interventions could have made a difference? What could have been done differently at the scene to save lives?
There is nothing wrong with these kinds of questions - they may help to prevent future acts of violence from taking place. But to reduce the potential for violence in general, it may be more constructive to look at the earliest links, not the most recent ones. While there are many factors that can lead to violence, the best prevention is always the earliest - the one that keeps the first domino from falling.

Monday 16 January 2017

Children Don't Really Misbehave by Thomas Gordon, Ph.D.

Most parents and teachers think of children as either "behaving" or "misbehaving". This labeling of behavior as "good" and "bad" begins when the child is quite young.
Interestingly enough, the term is almost exclusively applied to children – seldom to adults. We never hear people say:
  • ''My husband misbehaved yesterday."
  • "One of our guests misbehaved at the party last night."
  • "I got so angry when my friend misbehaved during lunch."
  • "My employees have been misbehaving lately.''
Apparently, it's only children who are seen as misbehaving - no one else. Misbehavior is exclusively parent and teacher language, tied up somehow with how adults have traditionally viewed children. It is also used in almost every book on parenting I've read, and I've read quite a few.
I think adults say a child misbehaves whenever some specific action is judged as contrary to how the adult thinks the child should behave. The verdict of misbehavior, then, is clearly a value judgment made by the adult - a label placed on some particular behavior, a negative judgment of what the child is doing. Misbehavior thus is actually a specific action of the child that is seen by the adult as producing an undesirable consequence for the adult. What makes a child's behavior misbehavior (bad behavior) is the perception that the behavior is, or might be, bad behavior for the adult. The "badness'' of the behavior actually resides in the adult's mind, not the child's; the child in fact is doing what he or she chooses or needs to do to satisfy some need.
Put another way, the adult experiences the badness, not the child. Even more accurately, it is the consequences of the child's behavior for the adult that are felt to be bad (or potentially bad), not the behavior itself.
When parents and teachers grasp this critical distinction, they experience a marked shift in attitude toward their children or students. They begin to see all actions of youngsters simply as behaviors, engaged in solely for the purpose of getting needs met. When adults begin to see children as persons like themselves, engaging in various behaviors to satisfy normal human needs, they are much less inclined to evaluate the behaviors as good or bad.
Accepting that children don't really misbehave doesn't mean, however, that adults will always feel accepting of what they do. Nor should they be expected to, for children are bound to do things that adults don't like, things that interfere with their own "pursuit of happiness.'' But even then, the child is not a misbehaving or bad child, not trying to do something to the adult, but rather is only trying to do something for himself.
Only when parents and teachers make this important shift - changing the locus of the problem from the child to the adult - can they begin to appreciate the logic of non-power alternatives for dealing with behaviors they don't accept.

Monday 9 January 2017

The Case Against Time-out

The Case Against Time-out
by Dr. Peter Haiman
For generations, parents have sought a reliable and dependable way to handle childhood misbehavior. The most recent and popular discipline technique is time-out. Although time-out is better than spanking, it is not an appropriate way for parents to cope with the misbehavior of their children. Moreover, the use of time-out can create subsequent childhood behavior problems. These problems can affect the well-being of the child and severely strain the parent-child relationship.
Child Behavior - A Symptom
The behavior of children has a legitimate cause. Childhood behavior is determined, for the most part, by how children feel about the current state of their physical and psychosocial needs. Needs are strong in every child, and children are, by nature, sensitive to their own needs. If one or more of their needs are not met, children will soon feel uncomfortable.
Children will cry out when they feel uncomfortable. An infant or toddler's cry announces feelings of frustration. These cries have evolved as a survival mechanism. They attract parental attention. The purpose of a cry is to obtain the kind and quality of parental love and care that will properly attend to unmet needs and, therefore, establish feelings of security in the child. The misbehavior of older children and adolescents is a cry for help announcing that their needs are frustrated.
Cries and misbehavior from children and adolescents are, in a way, very much like a sore throat, stuffed up nose, aching muscles, or a fever. All are symptoms. All have causes. A medical practitioner knows that when the virus or bacteria that is causing physical symptoms is eliminated, the noxious feelings will be quelled. Similarly, when parents correctly diagnose and provide remedies that address the needs of children and adolescents, the symptoms of crying or misbehavior will also disappear.
The frustration of important needs does not feel good at any age. However, children can become quite upset and demanding when their needs are not met. Their often intense outbursts stem, in part, from their dependent nature. Unlike most adults, young children lack the ability to meet their own needs. They are physically unable to do most self-care tasks. By nature, they also have strong emotional needs and vulnerabilities. Moreover, unlike most adults, young children are unable to tolerate frustration well. In addition, infants, toddlers, and many preschool-aged children are unable to identify the frustrated needs that are making them upset. This makes it impossible for most young children to tell their parents what is bothering them and why they are often unable independently to get their needs fulfilled.

When time-out is used, parents first firmly demand that their child stop misbehaving and be quiet. The child is then usually required to go and sit alone in a room, away from parents, and admonished not to come out of the room until they are sure that they can control their behavior. Being placed in time-out prolongs the time that a child must endure the frustrated need that caused their misbehavior. Thus, unmet normal needs become increasingly uncomfortable as the time-out continues. Young children depend upon, want to be with, love, and need their parents.
What exacerbates this increasingly uncomfortable state of being frustrated is the fact that the child must be alone, away from the parents who they must rely upon to meet their needs, This enforced separation from their basic source of comfort, security, and well-being adds considerably to the woe of a child. Moreover, being alone in time-out can create additional disturbing feelings that the child must endure. Painful emotions like fear and worry often develop. A frustrated child who must sit quietly and alone in time-out frequently becomes angry. Although the youngster dare not express this anger when in time-out, the child often expresses it by becoming angry and defiant sometime after being released from time-out. The practice of separating a child in time-out from parents can in itself become the cause of future misbehavior, because being alone and in time-out increases the frustrations felt by a child who is already frustrated.
Interpersonal dilemmas and conflicts are best resolved when each individual has sufficient opportunity to talk to and be heard by the other person. Modeling, initiating, and practicing the process of open dialogue is essential if a youngster is to learn healthy problem solving. Does time-out lend itself to this process? Helping children talk about how they feel, combined with parental patience, is required if children are to develop the ability to verbalize their feelings and needs rather than act them out.

Lifelong Effects of Frequent Time-out
For the frustrated and uncomfortable child, time-out offers enforced silence and the feeling of being rejected by one's parents. A youngster who misbehaves and then is given time-out feels hurt. This hurt, combined with the frustration that caused the youngster to misbehave, gives birth to anger. And discipline practices like time-out, which create hurt and anger, can harm a child.
A serious cost of being given time-out in childhood is the lesson that one should bottle up uncomfortable emotions. Upset in time-out and unable to express distressing feelings, youngsters desperately need to stop the painful feelings going on inside them. To cope, children learn to ignore and/or distract themselves from the energy of their hurt and angry feelings. Thus, children learn to repress their painful feelings. In the process, nervous habits emerge such as thumb sticking, fingernail biting, hair pulling, skin scratching, tugging at clothes, self-pinching, and many other similar behaviors. The purpose of these behaviors is to ward off uncomfortable feelings and, in identification with their parents' criticism of them, to punish themselves. These defense strategies serve to release anger and ignore uncomfortable feelings.
As a result, being unaware of true feelings can often become a characteristic feature of a person's life. This reduces a person's self-awareness and can affect the quality of life throughout an entire lifetime.

Developing the Well-behaved Child
Parents can develop a well-behaved, self-disciplined child best by responsively and continuously meeting their child's developmentally normal needs and drives; by demonstrating and articulating humane values in day-to-day interactions with their youngster; and by exposing their child to life experiences that strengthen and reinforce these values. Troubled and spoiled children are created when parents do not meet their child's normal needs and drives consistently and appropriately.
What are the basic, normal childhood needs? If a child is physically healthy, well nourished, satisfactorily exercised, and not tired, the youngster's physical needs are being met. A youngster who has received sufficient and continuous satisfying attention, affection, and recognition from parents and other adults and children to whom the child is emotionally attached, the child's social and emotional needs are fulfilled. If a child's normal curiosity, exploratory nature, and intrinsic interests are regularly allowed opportunities to unfold and develop, the intellectual needs of that child will be satisfied. When young children are given opportunities, within a securely supportive and trustworthy environment, to become increasingly more independent, make choices, and meaningfully participate in decision making, their normal need to exercise some control over their life and to express their own will are being appropriately addressed.
It is very important for parents and parents-to-be to learn the developmentally normal characteristics' of each stage of early human development. It is also important to recognize a virulent myth that still exists in our society: that fully meeting a child's needs will spoil the child. The research literature clearly says that the opposite is true. The well-disciplined child is created when parents appropriately fulfill the needs of childhood and adolescence.

Peter Haiman, Ph.D. has been a childrearing consultant for over 30 years. He developed and administered a nationally recognized parent and child center in Cleveland, Ohio, and also served as chairman of the Department of Child Development and Early Childhood Education at the University of South Carolina.
This article was first published in the May-June 1998 issue of Mothering. It is reprinted here with permission from the author and the editors.