Saturday, May 17, 2008

parenting as a structure

There is a very interesting discussion in the combox of barefoot meandering. The discussion started with an essay by an unschooled boy on limitation of video games, but in the comments brings up all sorts of interesting unschooling/classical education issues, which of course are my primary focus on this blog. It does get a bit controversial in parts and the equivocations in terminology are frustrating.

Some semantic-related questions:

  • Is setting limits the same thing as "coercion"?
  • Does freedom from explicit limits imply permissiveness or neglect?
  • What is "addiction" and what is its origin? Is it better addressed by looking at the big picture of the addictive behavior, or just disallowing the object of addiction?

Where I see agreement between the "opposing sides":

  • Everyone agrees that their parental goal is to raise children who as adults will make good decisions freely for themselves (though they may disagree on what constitutes a responsible adult) .
  • Everyone agrees that parents have authority (with distinctions as to definition and implication) and that children are owed respect (with similar distinctions)

The disagreement seems to be basically prudential, then, prudence being defined as "the exercise of sound judgment in practical affairs." So then:

  • Does allowing choices take parental guidance out of the picture? Can a child learn to make wise choices without limits being set?
  • Does setting limits inhibit the ability of a child to make good choices in freedom?

Another question -- given the reality of human fallen nature in children and parents both, what is the best way to deal with that?

How does understanding of original sin play into one's parental policies? Can an understanding of fallen nature go hand-in-hand with some form of non-coercive parenting (here again the semantics are tricky and I feel like just writing my own definitions out so I can make some progress in actually thinking this through for myself).

And one more -- if limits are necessary in cases where the child's preservation is at stake, and are necessary *because* of the inexperience of a child, are there some important areas not directly concerned with preservation where the child's well-being is at stake?

What is more important in those cases -- letting the child learn to practice making good decisions and thus gain prudence, or imparting prudence by means of parental controls or limits? Obviously to a Thomist, discovery from real life is more valuable than second-hand instruction, but that doesn't mean instruction is never useful or required.

One of the quasi-integral parts of prudence is "docility" or teachableness and this is a virtue. This is a habit or disposition of learning from others and not having to constantly bump your own head against the consequences of your misjudgements. In its mature form it is a considered attitude, but children seem to have a natural tendency to look up to their elders.

I have read advice on teaching and training children that say that the more rebellious a child is, the more the wind should be tempered to the shorn lamb, so to speak. The child obviously lacks docility and in that state, by definition, he is not very teachable. There is often an implicit relationship problem and great care and concern is required not to "exasperate" the child. This does not mean fudging values, but is a description of method and approach. You want to work on docility, since this is the prerequisite of learning according to Adler.

Of course, I suppose that a non-Christian might disagree that docility is a virtue. It is often seen as synonymous with subservience though subservience is a defect of docility. In Adler's words (this is what I was looking for when I found the quote in the last post):

The two virtues of the student are studiousness (studiositas) and docility (docilitas).....Docility is much harder. Curiously enough, the word itself throws us off, though it is a virtue and, I think, the prime virtue of the student. The extremes between which it mediates are subservience and indocility or recalcitrance. Unfortunately most people use the word 'docility' in the sense of the extreme; they speak of a person as docile when they mean that he is submissive, lamb-like, subservient. But the extreme is a vice, not the virtue, just as recalcitrance or intransigence is a vice.

Docility, that middle ground between the two, involves a critical use on the part of the student of the teacher as an instrument of learning. I am saying that the docile student uses the teacher. It is perfectly right for him to use the teacher because the teacher is an instrument. To use the teacher critically means that the student is neither submissive to his authority without active inquiry (since nothing is to be accepted on the authority of the teacher, nothing is to be memorized and parroted) nor resistant to the art or skill of the teacher showing him the way to learn.

His attitude is one of respect; he listens. What the teacher says just by virtue of his office is worth asking about to see whether it is true. What the teacher says is listened to respectfully as a challenge. Where the student is initially inclined to disagree, he should watch himself from becoming indocile and recalcitrant; where he is initially inclined to agree, he should guard against becoming submissive.

Of course, the teacher/student relationship is not the same as the parent/child one, though there are definitely overlaps particularly when you are homeschooling.

I think I'll leave it there for now! Oh, one more quote given by Drew Campbell in the com box, from Jacques Maritain's "Education at the Crossroads" (hooray, my library has the book)

“The freedom of the child is not the spontaneity of animal nature, moving right from the start along the fixed determinate paths of instinct […]. The freedom of the child is the spontaneity of a human and rational nature, and this largely undetermined spontaneity has its inner principle of final determination only in reason, which is not yet developed in the child.

“The plastic and suggestible freedom of the child is harmed and led astray if it is not helped and guided. An education which consisted in making the child responsible for acquiring information about that of which he does not know he is ignorant, an education which only contemplated a blossoming forth of the child’s instincts, and which rendered the teacher a tractable and useless attendant, is but a bankruptcy of education and of the responsibility of adults toward the youth. The right of the child to be educated requires that the educator shall have moral authority over him, and this authority is nothing else than the duty of the adult to the freedom of the youth.”

This is a great quote; however, I don't really see radical unschoolers disagreeing with this in essence. Their main point has always seemed to me that coercion tends to be at least a mild disruption to the relationship, whereas a mindful, non-reflexive way of parenting that looks clearly at the various choices in a given situation is preferable in terms of moral authority and in helping the child gain wisdom.


momof3feistykids said...

It sounds like an interesting discussion, and this certainly suggests a very different use of the word "docility" (which usually makes me think of mindless sheep :-) ) I tend to dislike both the extreme ends of the argument. I have read the argument that setting limits with kids is simply coercion, and I think it's absurd. On the other hand, self-determination is very important at ANY age.

lissla lissar said...

Hm. Sorry, my thoughts are mostly about the essay, although I like the two virtues of the scholar very much. I'm one of those who gets her hackles raised at the idea of my children playing a lot of video games. I think it may be because video games are my husband's favourite pastime- specifically RPG games- and those are designed to make it pretty difficult to find a good stopping place, ever. There's always something more to be done, one more battle to fight, one more puzzle to solve. I admit that the same could be said of books. There's always something more to read, and interruption can be galling. Still, most of my male friends are gamers, and I know that most of them have done all-night game sessions, forgotten to eat, forgotten to sleep, forgotten to go to the bathroom. As far as I know, there are no recent recorded cases of anyone dying due to too much time spent reading, and there are people who have died playig computer games.

That tendency worries me. A lot.

Willa said...

Oh, I wanted to hear thoughts about the VGs, too. My husband is a computer game designer, so I know that culture you are talking about. My husband has been pretty healthy about it particularly since it became a job not fun ;-) but of course, boys do seem to have a tendency to get pulled into the whole scenario.

Since my oldest came home, the four older boys have been playing a lot of Warcraft together -- I am OK with it for the short term since I know they will soon go back to the norm which is for us, 2 afternoons a week.

Steph, that is where I am too on limits vs determination. In practice I find it to be interactive and like Stephen Covey's "win/win". You probably do too from what you've written about how you set goals with your children.

Laura A said...

This is interesting. I would agree that there is a fair amount of common ground and that most people get their hackles up over the extremes. Not that there aren't some genuine differences in parenting that have practical consequences of the "child x stomps on child y's sandcastle because it fulfills his sense of self-determination" variety.

I think that John Holt called the type of authority mentioned in the quotes, "natural authority." Can't remember which book he discussed it in, though.

I also like the passage in which he says that just knowing a family's (or school's) philosophy isn't enough, because when you visit the family (or school) the reality of how it's implemented may be something completely different from what you would have imagined.

Willa said...

I also like the passage in which he says that just knowing a family's (or school's) philosophy isn't enough, because when you visit the family (or school) the reality of how it's implemented may be something completely different from what you would have imagined.

True! Glad to hear John Holt said it because I've thought it many times. Internet makes it harder to get down to this level.

It's also convicting! I should tape it to my keyboard! I used to ask myself how I would feel, if, say, Pope Benedict XVI unexpectedly dropped in to visit (substitute any name of someone you'd like to have the good opinion of). Would I be humiliated? How and in what way? That would sometimes be a clue as to what things I should change about how I was operating.

Anonymous said...

The Adler quote reminded me very much of what Plutarch says in "On the Student at Lectures." He talks about the proper attitude that students need to have to get the most out of their studies, both with respect to their teachers and to their fellow students. He calls for humility, patience, and discretion.

My association with "docility" is a bit funny, but not unrelated. It's Christopher Smart's line in his poem about his cat: "For he is docile and can learn certain things." I would guess that Smart, for all his own troubles, at least knew his Latin! :)

Willa said...

LOL, I'd read that poem but did not make that connection. That's very neat.