Sunday, January 18, 2009

Human Dignity in Children

"The first thing to do, in the consideration of the obedience of children, is to differentiate clearly in our minds between the obedience that is desirable for an animal, and that which is desirable for the young of the human race. We are apt to be confused here, and to have a misunderstood notion that children should obey, unquestioningly, passively, with no volition of their own, as does a well-broken horse.

But such unquestioning obedience, as a moment's reflection will show, is a very dangerous mental habit for a child to acquire, as well as a very difficult one to force him to acquire. The horse may obey unquestioningly some human being; he will always have some human being set in authority over him. But in a very few years, as human life goes, the child will be grown; will no longer be subject to the authority of parents, and must in turn be able to secure the obedience of others. It is essential, therefore, that he shall begin to be a human being -- that is, to obey intelligently -- as soon as possible.

What do we mean by the phrase "obey intelligently?" We mean he must obey, not because some one has told him to andd will punish him if he does not, for that is the obedience exacted of the animal; but he will obey because the command is a reasonable one, which his reason tells him it is necessary to obey."

This is another excerpt from The Montessori Manual for Teachers and Parents.

She goes on to say that of course, one can't expect reasoned obedience from a very small child.

"Babies under eighteen months must be forced to obey, if the occasion rises, as other little unreasonable animals are forced.... but, as this is a very bad method of obtaining obedience, the occasions for requiring obedience should be sedulously avoided, as much as is reasonably possible. "

Parents inadvertently foster disobedience by unreasonable commands:

"Parents, in their great anxiety to avoid that utter abomination, a disobedient child, often are entirely unreasonable in their demands on very young children. You would not dream of asking your 2 year old son to do a sum in arithmetic; and yet you tell him peremptorily to do that far harder thing, "Do keep still for a minute!" He cannot keep still for a minute at that age, and to issue that command to him means simply that you yourself are initiating him into the meaning of disobedience."

This reminds me of Charlotte Mason who says that parents should never make a command that they don't intend to see carried out to the utmost. Though I've known moms to misunderstand this dictum of Charlotte Mason's and think it means that one's command ought to be escalated to the level of an all scale power struggle, she in fact says, and I take it to mean, that one must be very restrained and careful in commands -- never making a command unless one knows it is in the power of the child to carry it out. By "in the power", I mean more than within sheer physical capability; I mean that the child is able to muster his own will or training in habit to obey without a terrible physical and emotional strain.

Later, Charlotte Mason says, you can:

when he is old enough, take the child into confidence; let him know what a noble thing it is to be able to make himself do, in a minute, and brightly, the very thing he would rather not do.

To secure this habit of obedience, the mother must exercise great self-restraint; she must never give a command which she does not intend to see carried out to the full. And she must not lay upon her children burdens, grievous to be borne, of command heaped upon command.
Another thing that Dorothy Canfield Fisher brings out, that is also emphasized by Charlotte Mason, is that commands ought never to be the whim of the parents:

"Our children should understand that their duty is not to obey our personal wishes, because we happen to be their parents, but to obey eternal laws which we represent and expound and enforce. To take an instance, familiar to all of us, which comes into our everyday experience: Children should not, any more than they can help, be "messy" over their meals..... Why should they not do these things? Simply because their parents forbid it? Not at all Because it is their duty, as members of a community, to make the common life as agreeable, as easy, and as economically conducted as possible."

Now I can think of a possible objection to this -- that obedience, while it should be as much as possible "free" obedience in order to be virtuous, should not be contingent upon an immature reasoning process. That is, the parents ought not have to wait patiently upon the child's acceptance of a command as personally "reasonable." Small children don't reason impartially because this is not their developmental focus at this time. They will argue, yes, but their arguments will be in the service of getting their needs met. This used to confuse me when all my children were very small, and I've seen it confuse other moms -- I've seen moms try to "reason" with a very small, determined child, which is of course almost entirely useless and gives the wrong message, that authority has to convince and plead and persuade. And it often makes the child frantic, for good reason; as Jean Liedloff writes in Who's in Control?, it throws the child upon his own resources and sets up an internal confusion, because the child wants to learn from the world around him:

It appears that many parents of toddlers, in their anxiety to be neither negligent nor disrespectful, have gone overboard in what may seem to be the other direction.....she appears to the tot not to know how to behave, to be lacking in confidence and, even more alarmingly, looking for guidance from him, a two or three year old who is relying on her to be calm, competent, and sure of herself.

I think both Charlotte Mason and Dorothy Fisher provide for this, too. They do not say that every small child should always "see" a command as reasonable; merely that it should be reasonable in itself. And they both say that authority should be restrained and planned for the good of the child, and his ultimate ability to do right reasonably and of his own volition. Authority should not be exploited for the convenience of the stronger person; it does a disservice to itself and to the people concerned on both sides when it is harsh and arbitrary.

Overall, most families and most children have a lot of times in their lives when there is no conflict, no need to think about authority or obedience. During those times, it's like the air we breathe; we only have to think about it when it's in short supply or somehow tainted. When there is a problem, as with poor air supply, there is usually a two-sided solution -- make the good easier and more available, and make the bad more difficult and less accessible. This means different things at different ages and in different situations, obviously. Mrs Fisher talks more in detail about it in the Montessori Manual, but that's probably for another post as this one has already gone quite long.


Stephanie said...

"Parents inadvertently foster disobedience by unreasonable commands" --- Exactly.

When I was a girl, I asked, "Why?" - not as a stalling tactic, but sometimes as a challenge (as in, "I dare you to come up with a reasonable justification for this") and sometimes as a genuine curiosity. I actually wanted to know why I was being asked to do something. (I think it surprised me not to be able to see it in the first place.)

When I had kids, I decided that moms should at least KNOW why they're asking a young human person to do something, so I used to say to my kids, "Go and do it. When you're done, come back and we'll talk about it."

AND THEY NEVER ONCE CAME BACK!!! I was soooooo disappointed. I wanted to explain myself.

After she reached adulthood, I asked my daughter if she remembered this. She said, "Of course."

"Well??? Why didn't you ever come back?"

"Because I knew why. Even if I didn't want to know why, I always knew why by the time I was done with it anyway, so what would have been the point?"

Conclusion: Never ask your kids to be impressed. Whatever you do, they'll just think it's normal.

Marie said...

This is a very helpful post to me, Willa. It kind of summarizes thoughts that have grown with me as a mom, and it is always helpful to read someone else saying what I've thought!