As promised in my last post, I am going to review John Holt’s book, Escape From Childhood: The Needs and Rights of Children. I don’t really have the time nor the space to philosophize about each point in this book or to cover all the rights Holt would like to see children given…I’ll leave that to someone else. However, I will focus on a few points in the book that speak loudly to me on how we view children in general and how many of us have no real issues with how disrespectful we are towards children.
Just to give the basics on the book and the list of all the rights Holt advocated for, read the short bit here.
I bought this book back in 2000 when I was on an extended substituting job for a senior English and creative writing teacher (when you fill in for the same teacher for a long period of time, like for their postpartum leave or such). I bought the book at a book sale the school had…they were cleaning out the old and ‘outdated’ books from their library. Being only 18 at the time, I was still trying desperately to escape from my own childhood, which I don’t think I actually did until I was a few years into a marriage, a mother and 1200 miles away from all family — isn’t that the same story for so many? I skimmed through the book at the time and read a chapter here and there; agreeing with everything that I was reading, even day dreamed about discussing a few points I came across in the book with my class, but I never actually read the book cover to cover until about a month ago.
First, while there might only be a couple bits in this entire book that I disagree with (and those might only be because of wording and not intent behind the wording), I have to say that I really wish the book was twice or thrice as long and quoted more studies and examples of ‘real life’ children and families who are living/have lived in such mindful and consensual ways. Being a radical myself, I ‘get’ the book and share the truths in the book, but I also know that there are many people who could benefit (I’m talking about a large population of mainstream parents and those ‘on the fence’ of parenting/life-style philosophies) from the book or another like it, if it was more capable of bridging cultural meme gaps and incorporated more ‘tools’ (though I hate that term) for parents that help them change their perspectives. Being ‘on the fence’ and leaning more towards treating children as people and not property or ‘pets’ is a step and these people might be pushed over the fence by reading Escape From Childhood, but there are so many more out there who could make that leap of faith if there was just a little bit more ‘something’ to push them.
To push home the thought that I just shared, here is an excerpt from chapter one.
“It is never easy to change old ideas and customs. Someone wrote of her grandmother that whenever she heard a new idea she responded in one of two ways: (1) it is crazy, or (2) I’ve always known it. The things we know and believe are a part of us. We feel we have always known them. Almost anything else, anything that doesn’t fit into our structure of knowledge, our mental model of reality is likely to seem strange, wild, fearful, dangerous, and impossible. People defend what they are used to even when it is hurting them.” (page 4) Emphasis mine.
The first part of the book talks about the institution of childhood, what it means to be a child AND what it means to have a family with children. Of course, Holt points out how difficult it is to raise children now because of the nuclear family — difficult on BOTH the child and parent. We don’t have the support of a community, tribe or extended family like we have had throughout the history of man. Often times, this lack of support is even more burdensome on families where the mother (or father) is pretty much the sole parent, guardian, nurse, playmate and so on for her child(ren). It IS more difficult in many ways now to raise a child, but I also find that it is easier now to question just how children can and should be raised, whereas in times past, there was very little room to question what might be best for children or for children to voice what they might prefer.
I hear plenty of people talk of how much better off children are, because they are protected now from being ‘forced’ into adulthood too early. What I am understanding and what Holt speaks of when he mentions the “walled-garden” of childhood in the book is that much of this ‘protection’ from adulthood is due to or because of a lack of respect for children. In a world where children were respected as capable human beings, there would not be a need for much if any of this ‘protection’ from adulthood. If children were viewed as worthy of the same rights and responsibilities as adults, we wouldn’t need numerous laws prohibiting the exploitation of children…children are only exploited, because they are so cut off from the main-line of reality and are seen as almost like another species — a species to be owned, shaped and ‘loved’. Kind of like the beloved puppy of your childhood memories.
Holt has some heavy, yet truthful words to say about why many people even have children — especially those who find children to be rather inconvenient to their lives.
“…almost all adults, men and women, use children as what we might call love objects. We think we have a right, or even a duty, to bestow on them “love”, visible and tangible signs of affection, whenever we want, however we want, and whether they like it or not. In this we exploit them, use them for our purposes. This, more than anything else, is what we use children and childhood for — to provide us with love objects. This is why we adults find children worth owning and the institution of childhood worth preserving, in spite of their great trouble and expense.” (page 72)
Holt goes on to talk about forced affection from elders and how so many seem content on coercing their children to submit to physical affection from certain strangers and elders. This is one that boggles me to this day…with all the talk we give children about not letting anyone touch them or touch them in ways they don’t feel right about, yet we force them to give grandma a hug and grandpa a kiss. Holt points out just how easily the needs or desires of children are cast away because of age.
“Many…have written about…disgusting feelings of being embraced or kissed by an adult they did not like…. To such talk a friend of mine once said that perhaps the older person needed to kiss the small child and so it was right to compel the child to let him do it. This is a perfect example of that I mean about an adult using a child. If the needs of a four-year-old and a sixty-year-old come into conflict, why must the child always give way? …because he is smaller and weaker? …any adult who is so insensitive to the feelings of a child that he would embrace him in spite of the child’s revulsion, and indeed not notice the child’s feelings at all, is not embracing a real child but only the idea of a child, a child-object…. He embraces this particular one…[because] he is permitted to embrace it.” (page 73)
Holt goes on to say that if a person did this to a strange child that he would not get away with it and not be permitted to embrace a strange child. It is only because of familial relations or ties that this kind of forced affection is permitted. He even shares a little later on how he falls victim to this line of thought when he affectionately pats a young girl on the head who is sitting in his lap reading with him and she turns to look at him with surprise and wonder at why he would be so bold when they are sitting there reading.
On the surface it can appear understandable why so many people do not believe that children are capable of doing ‘adult’ things. One reason is that we force children to act and think in infantile ways well beyond their days of infancy. We find children to be ‘cute’ and cute in this context Holt and I both mean that we find children to exude qualities that appeal to us. Holt lists these qualities as: healthy, energetic, quick, vital, vivacious, enthusiastic, resourceful, intelligent, intense, passionate, hopeful, trustful, forgiving and though children can get very angry, unlike adults, they rarely hold grudges. Holt argues that these are not “childish” qualities, but “human” qualities. Unfortunately, when we connect with children we are often condescending in nature. Our idea of ‘cute’ is based on how ‘innocent’ children can seem in their weakness, naivety, helplessness, small stature and how sentimental we can make ourselves about a child’s presumed good nature, happiness and innocence. Children are no different than adults in that both have good days, bad days, stress, fears & desires. Yet, when most adults do encounter rather intelligent and capable children (typically those children who have been treated & repected as equals by their parents), they are astonished, often feeling threatened and they certainly do NOT think of the child as ‘cute’. It is very hard to have a real meaningful relationship with a person when you can only think of them in the abstract, as ‘cute’, because they then become an idea or symbol and do not represent a unique individual with whom you can respect, trust and learn from. Later in life, children learn how to exploit ‘cuteness’ to gain approval & attention. An example of how condescending we are towards children when we think of them as ‘cute’ is when a toddler is learning to walk.
“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…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.”
“I try to respond to the child’s determination, courage, and pleasure, not his littleness, feeblenss, 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…he wants to walk…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.” (page 84)
Crazy. I know. You are thinking about how you would see yourself as a ‘bad parent’ if you didn’t encourage, smile and chuckle at your baby’s efforts to walk. But, when you think of your toddler as only a human being desparartly trying to teach himself how to get from point A to point B more efficiently like the other humans in his life, you can begin to see how what almost all parents and bystanders do when watching a beginning walker as condescending and only explained by our thinking the child as ‘cute’. While I think it is quite alright to help a child or to even encourage or give positive feedback, but to carry on like most parents is enough to make me nausiated and I am sure most toddlers would pipe up about it if they were verbal enough or hadn’t already been convinced by their parents’ reactions that they weren’t capable of such feats like walking without being gushed over. “Leave him alone to get on with his work”.
“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 bigger people around them. This is why they soon find school such a disappointment; they so seldom get a chance to learn anything important or do anything real. But many defenders of childhood, in or out of school, seem to have this vested interest in the children’s incompetence, which they often call “letting the child be a child.” (page 86)
The entire chapter entitled, How Children Exploit Cuteness is a must read. Holt goes into great detail about how we view children in abstract ways…as ‘cute’ and a member of Childhood and not a child. We deal with Childhood and not real live unique children…we assume all children are the same, even though we tell each other and ourselves how different they all are. Holt talks about how we label children based on abstract thinking and relating to them and then map out their entire futures based on those labels. It’s then these labels that we use to judge them and decide if they are ‘on track’ or not. We are constantly making decisions for them and against them (their wills) that will drive them in the direction that *we think* they *should* go and not where *they think* they *should* go. When we romanticize about our children’s future, we run the risk of disappointment every time they are doing or saying something counter to our fantasy and then we dwell on that instead of helping them become the person they are meant to be and NOT the person we might want them to be.
This book is yet another brilliant piece of literature, not only from Holt, but from the library of literature fighting and advocating for the rights and liberation of the youth. While I know that I haven’t discussed any of the actual rights that Holt mentions in his book, I don’t think I need to. I can’t begin to cover here, even in synopsis, the thoughts behind many of Holt’s ideas regarding children’s rights. The main point is that if we lived in a world where children where NOT used as “love objects” or thought of as “cute” or in other abstract ways, were treated with their rightfully due respect and those around them stopped trying to squash their authenticity and autonomy, we wouldn’t need a blog post or great works of literature to convince people that, yes, a 6 year old should be allowed to vote as a citizen of this nation and that same 6 year old should be able to drink a beer, divorce his parents, have complete say over his educational endeavors and the list continues. Escape From Childhood is a book that I’d add to the required-to-read-before-parenthood-or-working-with-children-list.
I sum the book up in short terms by saying that it is another book discussing how much we squash children because of our own wants/needs/desires/baggage and not because we “know best”. If the majority of the world thought about children like Holt, myself and most Unschoolers, then there would be no need for this book, because the majority would “get it” and not need to be convinced of anything.
Yeah, I know; so much for that ‘reviewing’ part of this!