After the Pause
Thinking about the results of controlling and coercing children
“For last year's words belong to last year's language
And next year's words await another voice.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.” ~ T.S. Eliot
Mid-November of last year, I decided to pause my various writing projects “until the new year.” I wanted, I wrote, to refocus “on the more immediate and less theoretical aspects of life.” A very immediate situation arose near Christmas in the form of a serious family illness, and I took a longer pause than I had planned. Now that I am easing myself back into a broader focus, I have found that life has gifted me, yet again, with a new perspective – one that could result in new language and a new voice, as well as new questions to challenge old assumptions. The words are slowly returning, but what that will look like as this project redevelops this year, I do not know. While I've been gone, many more of you have signed on to become readers. Thank you for your faith in me to return and for your interest in my thoughts and words.
I've been thinking and writing about how children learn for over 45 years now. (I also lived it with my own two children in the 1970s and ‘80s.) One of the main themes running through that body of work is how adults control children. Parents do it and schools do it. It hinders learning and damages their development. And recently, I've been thinking about how that attitude toward kids shapes how we relate to each other as adults, with specific reference to where we're at as a society after three years of public health manipulation regarding Covid-19.
But first, because most people don't think much about how we control children, let me tell you what I mean. We nudge, then pressure kids. If that doesn't work, we try fear, and if that doesn't work, we employ outright coercion. It's the proverbial slippery slope. We think we have that right because we assume we know better than younger people what they should be doing, thinking, and learning – and when. And, to exercise that control efficiently – because we adults are busy people, you know – we need kids to keep to our agenda and timelines. We justify this approach by claiming it will make them resilient in addition to being well educated. We think that to become well educated children must attend school and be bullied into staying there lest they won't get a job or otherwise know how to function in adult life, and will therefore be failures. It's for their own good, we agree.
To me, this behaviour signals that the adults in most schools and families lack basic respect for children as people. In fact, I think that those who try to control kids may have lost touch with their own humanity! How else to explain the microaggressions and other not-so-subtle abuses against children occur daily in schools? I regularly hear about treatment ranging from isolation rooms or the withholding of classroom treats for perceived bad behaviour to public shaming of kids who don't behave or “perform” as expected by the adults in charge. This reward/punishment type of coercion is usually transactional and centred in power and ageism. It also displays an inexcusable lack of understanding about learning.
What Coercion Does
All that coercion in the name of control and discipline creates a hostile environment against which some children rebel (aka “misbehave”). Nevertheless, the coercion is so egregiously effective that many young people learn to tolerate the status quo no matter how unjust, oppressive, or merely boring it might feel. They learn to be obedient and what our society calls “well socialized.”
This psychological victimization and conditioning of children is a human rights problem, even though many people don't believe children even have rights. Not only that, it's a self-perpetuating downward spiral.
Once we've learned to obey instructions under fear of punishment at school or home, we can be easy to manipulate in other ways as we grow older. The walking wounded who were damaged by that coercion don't always recognize it as control or manipulation. For instance, we often hear adults justify spanking their kids by saying that they were treated similarly as children and “turned out just fine.” And how many of us welcomed serious limitations on our rights during government lockdowns and mandates presumably designed to limit the spread of a virus?
At the same time, when our vulnerability has been exploited as children, some of us grow up to relish power and, therefore, to treat others similarly to how we were treated in our families and schools. All of this coercion and control of children and young people creates fertile ground for both abusers and abused, and contributes to divisions and hatred, to exploitation and denial, and a variety of other ethical and moral problems.
In fact, it looks to me like we're suffering from a serious crisis in that regard.
The solutions are, at this stage, not simple. But those of us with children in our lives can begin by changing how we relate to them. We can help them to recognize, question, and push back against abusive power, not succumb to it. More than that, we can learn how to provide them with the respect, trust, love, safety, inspiration, mentoring, and community that they need rather than damaging them socially, intellectually, and emotionally by abusing the power our society grants us over its children. There are already many families living in that way with children and many inspirational resources online.
I believe that if we nurture children’s intrinsic motivation, rather than trying to force them to follow a path that we think is best, we can trust them to create a better world than the one we’re leaving to them. In fact, I think this revolution has never been needed more than at this very moment.
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