Resolve to Really Treat Children with Dignity, Courtesy, and Respect

An Australian homeschooler sent a link to me of an interview that John Holt and psychologist Richard Farson did on the topic of children’s rights for the Literary Guild’s radio show First Edition in 1974. As soon as I heard a few minutes of it I realized it was a recording we used to sell in John Holt’s Book and Music Catalog (for instance, see the catalog bound in GWS 65). Richard Farson, the author of Birthrights: A Bill of Rights for Children (out of print) and John, who wrote Escape From Childhood: The Needs and Rights of Children, are interviewed about their perspectives on children’s rights and they provide some fascinating insights into why justice for children is important yet so hard for adults to discuss rationally.

One of the surprising comments from both authors is in response to the question [my paraphrase]: “What is the most controversial right you propose for children?” I was expecting the right to sexual freedom to be the reply, but the rights that really made people angry with Holt and Farson when they spoke were “economics and the vote” according to both—the right to earn and keep their own money and to be political participants—followed closely by the right of a child to make their own home.

Further, as I listen to this tape again, I am struck by the similarities and differences that Holt and Farson have towards children’s rights. Holt serves as the tactician towards change, where Farson comes across as a big-picture strategist and a political realist. It is interesting how neither man expects the changes he proposes to happen in their lifetimes, given our attitudes towards children, but John Holt is very careful to present hope and simple tactics that make changes in favor of children’s rights more likely to occur.

I like how Farson and Holt both sympathize with parents and the difficulties they face raising children in today’s society. Indeed, both discuss the burden of parenting, and Farson details some of the stress and resentment that builds against children when parents are forced by law to make their children attend school. Holt goes further and notes how the separation between young and old was not as codified as it is today:

“We have created—events have created—a kind of a gap between children and adults that simply didn’t exist. I think it is worth noting what [Philip] Aries and others have pointed out, that an awful lot of what we think of now as children’s games, dances . . . were once games that were played by adults and children together. They were party games, they were what folks did, young and old . . . “. . . If I think of three aspects of childhood that I don’t like, one is old and two are new. Children were always powerless; they were always technically slaves. What’s new is that they are isolated, they’re segregated, cut off from the world, and they’re useless . . . Those two are new and psychologically enormously destructive.”

Farson is careful not to use the word slave to describe children, but John uses it freely on this tape, as he does in Escape From Childhood. It is an explosive term, I admit, and “student” sounds like a much better term to our ears, but let’s not forget that in school the teacher was often called Master and, even today, the paddle is used in schools in 19 states to discipline unruly children and others who refuse to do mental labor for whatever reason . . . For those who want to classify John Holt as a far-left radical for using such vocabulary in his work (he refers to “the child as a type of hybrid super-pet and slave”), consider how John describes himself in this interview:

“I’m a very old-fashioned person and I believe in human liberty in a sense that I don’t think very many people do. And what I object to about the condition of slavery—and being a slave doesn’t have anything to do with whether you’re well treated or not. Some slaves were well treated. What I hate and fear about the idea of people growing up in a condition of slavery is that it gives most of them the minds and hearts of slaves. You don’t learn to love freedom by being a slave. You learn to believe that that’s all you’re capable of. And I’m terribly afraid of where this process may lead us.”

When asked if children’s lot has improved since the advent of compulsory schooling John replies:

“The answer to that question varies from child to child, but a child who may have gained in some areas may have lost in others. As slaves, probably more children are indulgently treated, and even kindly treated, than was once the case. On the other hand, I think it was Alexander Hertzen who once remarked somewhere that people—he wasn’t thinking of children, he was thinking of other kinds of classes of people—could live for centuries with the most outrageous absurdities and injustices as long as it never occurred to them to think that this couldn’t be necessary or there could be a better way of doing things. Once that seed of doubt and questioning gets planted in somebody’s head, what was once a tolerable, if not very pleasant, condition becomes almost unbearable. I wasn’t particularly happy when I was 14, but I never thought to question the framework in which I was living. It simply never occurred to me. If I had known then what most 14 year olds know now it would have been exceedingly painful.”

Farson makes some wonderful points about childhood, too. He says that adults have a hard time truly understanding and reconstructing their childhoods because “our memories are so fragmentary and so distorted by adult values.” His appreciation for the need for children to learn from their mistakes over time is clear when he states, “You protect people best, I think, by protecting their rights to do what they perceive as best for themselves, to protect themselves.” Of course, Holt agrees wholeheartedly with this, as it is a central point of Escape From Childhood. But it is a point nearly no one else agrees with today: we must protect children for their own good by either letting their parents or the state decide what they should do. Children are considered incapable of making good decisions and need others to do so for them until they reach the so-called age of maturity—another taken-for-granted concept challenged by Holt on this show. John wonders aloud who among them has reached and behaved maturely for the rest of their lives, and the interviewer jokes that he’s still waiting for maturity to come to him.

It’s true that some children want, need, or require adult help but when the child is ready to cross the line from dependence to independence we should be allowed to try and help them do so. As John notes, children can always go back to the walled garden of childhood if they want; trying adult responsibilities is not an irrevocable decision. Holt suggests many ways here and in his writing for how we can make it safe for children to discover and nurture independence in some, or all, aspects of their lives as they grow.

The children’s rights movement of the 1970s stalled and went underground, with Holt banking on homeschooling as a way for adults and children to better learn how live respectfully together. However, the plight of children in society has gotten worse since the seventies. Elizabeth Young-Bruehl, a psychoanalyst and the author of Childism (Yale Univ. Press, 2012), proposes that persecution of the young pervades society today, just as it did in Dickens’ time for the “real-life Oliver Twists and David Copperfields throughout Britain,” and throughout history. Young-Bruehl documents this prejudice and names it childism:

“But as Dickens knew, there was a flaw in the arguments of the child-savers: children were being seen as possessions that served adults needs the way gadgets and animals do, the way slaves and servants do, the way any group construed as “naturally” subservient does. Treating a child as a possession was not philopedic. . . . Unlike misopedia, childism does not reference the older “mis-“ words of group hate; rather, it invokes contemporary words for prejudices—racism, anti-Semitism, sexism—each of which refers specifically to the idea of treating a group of people as a possession and legitimating their servitude with an idea, an “ism.” People do not always hate those they subordinate; but those they subordinate with an “ism,” a prejudicial political ideology, they cannot love.”

Bruehl-Young has named the prejudice but, if the other “isms” are to be our guides, it will take a very long time before political action will be taken to address childism. Where does this leave an adult who wants to share his or her life with children today? Always the practical philosopher, John Holt offers these words:

“Three words I try to keep up in front of my mind now when I deal with children—and I mean two-year-old children, I mean one year old.

“Dignity. Courtesy. Respect.

“I think it’s terribly important that we try to be polite. I think it’s important and very difficult for us to talk to children in the same tone of voice that we use talking to somebody else. Here I suggest something that any adult that wants to can do beginning right now. If something would be painful, or shameful, or humiliating to us, then we ought to try, as far as we can, not say or do that to children. If we could do that much I think a lot of other stuff would begin to flow from it. And that little bit of dignity, courtesy, and respect is something that anybody can begin to work on.”

John echoes the golden rule—Do unto others, as you would have them to unto you—and reminds us that though it is simple to state it is very hard to do, especially for adults who care for children. Let’s start small and simple and make 2014 the year we treat all children with dignity, courtesy, and respect and let’s see what flows from these positive actions.