Throughout history, there have been certain groups
of people whose humanity and rights have been undermined by ideas that
stereotyped and denigrated them as a group. In our culture, children
fall into that category.
This has been the case with black people, for example. Some of the false
ideas about skin color were so tenacious that we still see them
surviving in racism today. False ideas tended to be of different kinds:
There were the most obviously racist notions that blatantly doubted that
black people were as intelligent or even as human as white people; then
there were condescending ideas that infantilized black people, casting
them as “too child-like” or “primitive” to warrant self determination,
which all too conveniently allowed white people to claim that it was in
other races’ best interests to be ruled over. Then there are slightly
more subtle, but still pernicious, ideas that romanticized black people,
calling them “noble savages” while ensuring that they were kept
segregated so that white people could point to a fantasy world unsullied
by the progress.
It isn’t only race that has attracted a great deal of destructive
stereotyping; women have suffered from similar false ideas.
The problem with all of these ideas is that they keep whole groups
locked into typecasts and so stifle progress, innovation, and
individuality. They are a waste of human life, which is, in fact,
impossible to categorize, label, and control.
More and more in liberal societies, these ideas have been challenged
and, despite the surviving legacy of racism and sexism, everyone’s
humanity and individuality is, at best, recognized and respected. We can
recognize the talents of a black musician without having to believe that
every black person has some mystically innate sense of rhythm; we can
support a woman’s decision to be a stay-at-home mother without having to
believe that education is wasted on women. Increasingly, we understand
that human identity is complex and multiple; one person has a range of
roles and relationships that interact to make them the unique person
that they are.
This emergingly complex view of real people is to be applauded,
but it sometimes seems that when it comes to children we are still
uneasy about such individuality.
As people who swim against the tide in terms of education, traditional
parenting, and lifestyle, we are much more likely to encounter children
who are used to, and benefit from, being seen as unique individuals. In
the world at large, however, children are still much more likely to be
categorized and stereotyped as a group than any adult population, and
not merely by extremists. Children are routinely lumped together and
written off in various derogatory ways and, even though we are making
different choices in our parenting and education, rarely are families
completely able to escape the pressures of the mainstream.
I don’t want to be so simplistic as to argue that
children are the last oppressed minority. Children, like everyone else
in Western-style democracies, have gained a great deal from being alive
today. At this point in history, children are more likely than ever
before to be seen as individuals; but there are certainly forces that
oppose this. In the cultures that many of us inhabit, parenting ideas
persist which fundamentally undermine any wholesale acceptance of
children as full human beings, just as false ideas have worked against
other swathes of humanity on the basis of color or gender. In
particular, there are four groups of ideas that are still alive and well
and that are stereotyping our children to their detriment.
Firstly, there is the notion that children are born
bad, can’t be trusted, and must be civilized. It may be that this
originates with a particular interpretation of a religious idea, but it
is culturally powerful and widespread. Bookstores abound with parenting
titles like the best-selling Toddler Taming, revealing just how deeply
rooted the idea of naturally “bad” children is rooted in popular
thinking. I believe this idea needs to be challenged if we are to accept
children as individuals.
Even among those who would not go so far as to
claim that children are inherently bad, there is often an assumption
that children’s lack of experience in life renders them somehow a lesser
species, unable to know what’s good for them, unable to respond to
reason. This type of “common sense” is very often not sense at all, just
the residue of the bad ideas we had foisted on us when we were children,
to paraphrase Einstein.
A second variant of ideas that undermine our
children’s humanity sounds, on the face of it, to be a much more
positive view of children. In this notion, children are closer to
nature, pure, sometimes almost other-worldly. But, sadly, this view
isn’t helpful because it just as surely renders children who are
romanticized stereotypes rather than real, unique individuals. Such
“perfect” children don’t eat sugar, watch TV, or play with plastic guns.
Like women before them, children afflicted by this crippling idea find
that a pedestal is a very small space to have to stand on.
Of course, many people don’t think that children
are born “bad”, nor do they romanticize children and chain them to the
pedestal. Instead, they fall into the trap of picking out particular
groups or types of children to distrust automatically. This more
specific form of distrust easily becomes a rationale for control. So,
for example, boys might be singled out as having particular natures that
require particular solutions regardless of the individual. Others target
children who are labeled as “hyperactive” or as having specific learning
styles (usually turned into learning problems or even pathologies). In
such cases, it is all too common to hear that reasonable negotiation
and problem solving don’t help.
While pressure groups and increasingly enlightened
thinking extends more and more human dignity to vulnerable groups like
Alzheimer’s patients, geriatric patients, differently-abled people etc., there
are certain groups of children whose chances of being treated seriously
as individuals are considerably worsening. The rash of forcibly
medicated children ostensibly suffering from ADHD is a prime example,
but similar memes are at work whenever certain children are lumped
together as a stereotypical group to be treated according to some
How we parent ultimately depends on how we view
children. If we think that children are born bad or rebellious, that
they are closer to nature, that boys are a separate species enslaved by
testosterone, or that some children can only be made to fit by being
radically altered with therapy or drugs, then we will respond to them
according to those assumptions. And we will tend to live in
self-fulfilling vicious cycles where what we think is what we get. After
all, we always tend to see what we are looking for and in any case we
will fail to see how compulsion is causing the damage we observe.
Change comes when we begin to think differently
about children and question the idea that children constitutes a class
of people who can be lumped together and treated as a group.
Children are born human. They don’t come with
in-built evil. They are simply limited and ordinary, just like adults.
But they are equally unique and special, just like adults. Since they
are individuals, they will challenge some of our dearest assumptions.
However, that is not a sign that they need to be controlled and made to
obey, but an invitation to interact positively and openly.
We don’t need to value obedience above the
ability to think any more than we need to see human nature as innately
self-destructive. Human nature is inquisitive and creative. And we need
to engage with it as such in order to nurture the individual child,
responding not to a stereotypical, static and romanticized notion of
what a child should be but rather to a unique young person.
Moreover, we need to guard that individuality even
when – or perhaps especially when – society would like to hand us a
label for a particular child. Does it really help to relate to our
children through stereotypical constructs of what it means to be a
“girl” or “hyperactive” or is it more helpful to simply relate to that
We live in complex times and the urge to find some
simplicity is a good one – and often part of the package of seeking to
parent and educate differently. But in the case of relating to our
children, the adage of “keep it simple” can’t mean finding a
one-size-fits-all way to relate to children, or to boys or to young
people with dyslexia. It has to mean encountering every child for who
they are – changing, complex, more than the sum of any labels that we
can think of, only human and yet profoundly exceptional. Simply,
Jan Fortune-Wood is a freelance writer and parenting adviser, who home educated her four children.
Shes works as editor at Cinnamon Press and is the author of five titles on home education, autonomous education and non-coercive parenting,
including Winning Parent, Winning Child, published in 2005. She lives in Wales.