Whose Childhood is it Anyway?
Updated: Feb 25
I have two students sitting in front of me in my office. The teacher, as teachers do, has brought them to the principal’s office because she has exhausted the tool box of proper disciplinary action, (calm, positive reinforcement, carrot AND the stick, separation, marginalization, phone calls home, parent meetings and even candy). Today, she is without words.
We are going to call one of these children Jean Jacques Rousseau and the other, John Locke. Another more commonplace description of them is schlemiel and schlimazel. Jean Jacques is constantly egging on John to further heights of misbehavior and, together, they are reeking havoc in Ms. Templeton’s room.
“Rousseau convinced Locke to go on my computer, put on a youtube video of two rhinoceros having sex and then they projected it onto the smart board,’ she says. ‘It took me more than 5 minutes to realize what was going on.” She is trying to control herself from laughing and so am I. The boys are sitting right in front of us. She is calm but she is also done. Her look says, ‘you deal with them today,’ and that sometimes is exactly the job of a principal. Rousseau and Locke are 6 years old.
Neil Postman, in his fascinating study, The Disappearance of Childhood, maintains that we are essentially stuck with two competing visions of childhood. They are two different roads that are meant to lead to a similar end.
In the Protestant (or Lockean) view the child is an unformed person who through literacy education, reason, self control, and shame may be made into a civilized adult. In the Romantic (or Rousseauian) view it is not the unformed child but the deformed adult who is the problem. The child possesses as his or her birthright capacities for candor, understanding, curiosity and spontaneity that are deadened by literacy, education, self control, and shame.* (See source below)
In both cases, Postman sounds as if he is discussing the nature of children and what they need. But the point is much more profound. Postman is demonstrating how what we imagine is best for our children is actually a representation of how we see ourselves as adults.
"Rousseau convinced Locke to go on my computer, put on youtube video of two rhinoceros having sex and then they projected it onto the smart board,’ she says. ‘It took me more than 5 minutes to realize what was going on.”
My Locke, sitting in front of me, is like that blank slate, willing to allow just about any influence to pull him into behaviors that get him into trouble. I need him to start to discern better, consider better choices about decisions he is making based on the influence of others. And, I want my Rousseau to take his wild ideas, his creativity, and spirit and start funneling them into more positive and productive behaviors. The danger, as I have mentioned in a previous blog post, (Children are Complex and Inspiring and Challenging, not Innocent and Wonderful), is the constant attempt to shape children into something we wish them to be. Or, to put it another way, to shape them into some version of us because it makes us feel more comfortable to see reflections of ourselves in our children and students.
I’m sure there is plenty that my Rousseau and Locke can gain from the adults around them and, if we think really hard, there is plenty of assumptions, based on our own prejudices and biases and shortcomings, that we wish they were never exposed to. We are always better off when we begin with the needs of the individual child: who are they? What makes them unique? How do we understand who they are right now? And, most importantly how can we best help them become the best versions of themselves?
*Postman, N. The Disappearance of Childhood. New York, NY. Vintage Books, 1994.