This article originally appeared in the spring 2013 Harker Quarterly.
What if children are more whole, complete human beings than adults? What do I mean by whole? Less fragmented. Well, that won’t do for a definition. No self-respecting teacher would allow a student to define a word simply by invoking its antonym and saying, not that.
But how are children whole in a way that adults are not, and how do we do them a disservice by treating them, as Alan Watts points out, as “human beings on probation”? Wordsworth said, “The child is Father of the Man,” capital F, capital M. What did he mean?
There are times when as a parent I feel like my children are human beings on probation. When one of my sons wants the super-size orange Fanta instead of the small, I ask my- self, doesn’t he know better? Aren’t I compromising enough by even allowing Fanta? Western civilization depends upon children drinking water, and he wants a cup of Fanta that is bigger than his whole head?
That is when parenting becomes a duty: when we are protecting civilization from the whimsical, wayward tendencies of children; when we are chiseling away at those tendencies so that children become “productive members of society”; when we demand quiet around the house so we do not lose our minds.
Alfie Kohn, in his book “Unconditional Parenting,” discusses a few hidden beliefs behind what he calls conditional parenting, the kind that makes parental love and attention conditional upon certain behaviors and attitudes we expect from our children. One of the hidden beliefs is B. F. Skinner’s behaviorism, which reduces children to a set of behaviors, good and bad, versus a whole human being with thoughts, feelings and a complex inner world.
I become a behaviorist in a flash, however, when the boys are fighting over a toy or when one decides to make the other’s life miserable. I go Pavlovian in nanoseconds. But Mr. Kohn’s voice is now in the back of my head. What has led up to the crisis? What is each kid jockeying for? Why such strong attachments to a piece of plastic? Who really instigated what? Do I really have the time and patience to figure all of this out?
Saints admired children for their unconditioned view on reality, their spontaneous relationship to what is, including themselves. That is perhaps what is meant by whole – children have less conditioning through experience. Early toddlers are perfect Zen masters: a tube of toothpaste, a drawer or a wooden spoon are all things of wonder.
But as educators and parents we have to do something, don’t we? If not, some children will watch “The Avengers,” drink Fanta and ponder the miracle of pots and pans all day. We have to prepare them for the demands of civilization. I think this is one of the many insights in Amy Ch-ua’s “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom” (which I believe got some unfair press): children are far more capable than we give them credit for, and per- forming anything at a high level is far more rewarding than stinking.
Jiddu Krishnamurti said, “It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” Ouch. That hurts. But perhaps as we prepare children to learn from society, society can and ought to learn from children. Healing means wholeness, and chil- dren can heal with their open, fresh and unprejudiced embrace of life. But children are life, so there is nothing really for them to embrace.
Wordsworth ended that same poem quoted above with, “And I could wish my days to be/Bound each to each by natural piety.” Children’s days are bound by natural piety, though they don’t know it. Adults’ days often are not, and they know it. Somehow we switch from piety to duty.
We need both. We know the saying, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Or, as Homer Simpson puts it, “No TV and no beer make Homer go crazy.” I think even kids intuitively understand the balance between piety and duty. Kids like order too, and even gravitate towards it naturally. Why? Because they have it all – they are whole. Adults are too. We just need children to remind us of it sometimes.