Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Respecting Your Child's Choices. Why Bother?

Questions have been asked elsewhere: "Why respect the choices of your child? Why put in all that effort? Hasn't one just fallen for the con-trick of psychiatrists who say that if a child has a substandard childhood, he will suffer for it for the rest of his life?"

It may seem a tad disingenuous to say that I don't think the answer should rest with the last question, but to look at possible answers to this question nonetheless. Unfortunately for my own conscience, that is precisely what I am about to do, so here goes...

The New Scientist, 26th November 2005, carried a piece entitled "How life shapes the brainscape". The full article requires subscription, so here is the bit that seems relevant here.

"Early trauma seems to cause changes in the brain too. In imaging studies of the emotion centres, the response of people to positive and negative images was analysed. Those who had been through an early life trauma had a blunted response to positive stimuli and heightened reactions to the negative. There were also structural changes in the hippocampus, an area important for learning and memory".

And then, of course, there's John Bowlby who developed his theories about Attachment Parenting after his early life negative experiences in British boarding schools. His studies of severely neglected children, (in a Romanian orphanage, if I recall correctly), revealed that these children suffered irrevocable and terrible damage for the rest of their lives.

But all this should be an aside. The real answer should be: "I respect the choices of my child because he is a human being. What quality about him means that he should only be viewed as something that only lives fully in the future? I do not believe that there is any vastly different quality in children that distinguishes them from adults and since I believe that life is to be lived to the full in every single moment, then it would be very wrong not to help a child live this way.

If one tries to make the argument that children only deserve to exist for their future selves in the course of which it is right that they may suffer, since they are incapable of making good decisions now, I would say "Well surely this argument equally extends to many adults. We are all irrational at times. We all make mistakes. Does this mean that all humans should only live for their future selves?"

Even if you do take the argument that children should only exist for their future selves seriously, would it not be better to help them practice living responsible, autonomous free lives as they will need to do as adults?

Also, in not respecting the choices of the child, one is effectively coercing them. This means that they are being forced to enact a theory that is not active in their minds, which in turn means that the learning that is going on in there is suboptimal, which in all likelihood will mean that the notional level, as set by some irrationally decisive judge, at which a child reaches the age of being able to enact his autonomy will be even furthur delayed.

Finally, what is in it for the adult? It is often assumed that respecting the choices of your child is very hard, pure grind, a matter of sacrifice on the part of the adult. It needn't be, and indeed shouldn't be, since very few children want to see themselves as a terrible burden to their parents, and therefore the onus is upon the parent not to feel put upon when respecting the choices of the child.

Not respecting the choices of your child is likely to be sheer hard grind. How many parents feel really good about taking a screaming child, who clings desperately to the doorway as the parents try to pull them out the home, into a school where they are utterly miserable? Isn't so easy afterall.


Clare said...

You could even ignore the theories, studies and arguments about the future lives of children and how they are affected by their early upbringing. How about 'I respect my children's choices because it makes us all able to live a happy and fulfilling life NOW'. If we all got run over by a bus tomorrow, would we really care if we'd made a huge effort to do something that would only have its rewards in the future? No! But we would be glad that we'd enjoyed and made the most of the present that we are living in right now. I have only had 2.5years experience of being a mother, but I can say most definitely that respecting my child's choices and needs is easy, enjoyable, relatively unstressful etc. etc. It makes for a toddler who respects other people and who don't have tantrums here there and everywhere. It makes for less shouting and arguing within the family. It makes for children who grow up learning the true value of negotiation and compromise. And we, as parents, know that our children aren't doing things because they're afraid of the consequences (or, even worse, afraid of their parents!) but because they genuinely want to be doing those things; they really enjoy being 'well behaved'; there is no reason to throw oneself on the floor and kick one's legs when one understands the reasons behind the very few prohibitions/rules that respectful non-coercive parents lay down (e.g. 'don't run in the road or a car may hit you'). So that's why I bother respecting my child's choices - hopefully this way of enjoying this time of intense parenting will have the bonus of creating well-rounded, sensible, generous, kind, respectful etc. adults who will pass on this attitude to their own children and so on. But that's just the bonus - not the main reason!


(your posts are so thought-inspiring to me at the moment - I think I'll have to blog this comment on my own blog again!)

Ron R said...

"I do not believe that there is any vastly different quality in children that distinguishes them from adults and since I believe that life is to be lived to the full in every single moment, then it would be very wrong not to help a child live this way."

I believe you're right on.