Good Children Don’t Understand How Things Work

For C.J. Cherryh’s atevi aliens, upbringing means teaching children to perceive the motives of others, a concept quite unknown to the middle-class parents of my generation.

In many animal species, parents teach their young essential skills. Felines, for instance, take their kits and cubs hunting. There may be a lot more teaching going on in the animal kingdom than we can see and understand. Now, some animal parents are more competent than others, for example there is a domestic-cat equivalent of the clueless teenage mother. Probably unique to human beings, however, is the potential for more systematically sabotaging the learning process by inculcating a misapprehension of the world. As far as we know, animals do not suffer from delusions about the nature of reality that are so well articulated that they can be passed on from one individual to another as memes. It also seems unlikely that animal parents would educate their cubs, at the expense of their survival, so as better to impress the denizens of the next burrow over.

Psychologists are well aware that we are all Keatsians, assuming (in the words of the Wikipedia) that “people who are physically attractive also possess other socially desirable personality traits”. Depending on what the culture values, these traits may include happiness, extraversion, success, kindness, altruism, loyalty and integrity. The fact that physical attractiveness does actually correlate with certain other traits, not least income, social skills and self-confidence, can easily be the result of the stereotype rather than its cause; that is, we fawn on the beautiful and give them what they want. All this being well known, one may then ask why parents spend so much time trying to con their offspring into the belief that the only thing that matters is what they are like “inside”; on which see my Part entitled “Beauty and the Beast”.

When we talk about the “innocence of childhood”, we generally mean ignorance of genital anatomy and sexual intercourse. This peculiar equation of ideas is maintained in order to conceal something a lot worse than sex: our reluctance to tell our children about the realities of competition, and how the race is not to the swift but to the cheat.

For any human organisation or enterprise, there is the way it purports to work and the way it actually does work. Civics books tell us about democratic institutions, but not about the family networks that represent the real power; real communication in a workplace may follow factional lines rather than the flow-chart; universities contain both Gnomes, who read books, and Operators, who press the flesh at conferences; and all of the above applies to high school. The official story is that you study hard, sit the examinations, get good marks and proceed to a splendid career; but playing the system can be just as if not more effective.

Some parents instruct their children in how things really work, and the children understand and act on what they hear. There must surely be as many cases where the children fail to understand what their cynical old folks are telling them about how to “get on”, and so confine themselves to doing what is officially required of them. Yet again, there must be the opposite cases, where the children are more perceptive than their credulous parents, and so work out how to succeed by their innate talent for observation and deduction. Perhaps the saddest combination is when conformist parents, who have devoted their own lifetimes to not understanding how the world wags, exhort their offspring exclusively in terms of the exoteric cover story, and the children actually believe them, study and work hard, and so live their lives without ever understanding how they have been overtaken and sidelined by lazier or dumber contemporaries.

One reason why so many parents fail to prepare their children for the realities of the adult world is probably to do with class markers; the middle-class child must at all costs be seen to be “well-spoken” and “nice”, and impress the neighbours above all by his biddability, whereas a nakedly street-smart and predatory bourgeois child would compromise the class status of his parents. For its part, the aristocracy has never cared a fig for “niceness”, while the proletariat places a greater value on assertiveness. The old-style labourer father, therefore, taught his son to handle himself in a brawl while the middle-class mother insisted that he be a self-effacing nonentity.

In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud complained that we do not adequately prepare children for the aggressiveness of the adult world: “that a modern upbringing conceals from the young person the role that sexuality will play in his life is not the only criticism that must be levelled against it. Another of its sins is that it does not prepare him for the aggression of which he is destined to be the object.” Instead of telling the young that people benefit from following certain rules, even though in reality these same people mostly ignore them, “the young are made to believe that everyone else fulfils those ethical demands — that is, that everyone else is virtuous. It is on this that the demand is based that the young, too, shall become virtuous.” I can certainly echo that from my own experience; my generation was constantly informed that our elders were, one and all, moral paragons. By some evil alchemy this virtuous generation had nevertheless begotten a horde of moral monsters, namely us. There was no question of pointing to another adult as an example of what not to do, unless in the form of frowning and sniffing and remarks that they were “not our sort of people”, which implied more a social distinction than any real ethical objection. Not that the English middle classes of those days could tell the difference.

Since then the situation may have become even worse, as progressive education appears to require the protection of the young from anything remotely traumatic, going so far as the attempt to prevent a group of children developing the internal pecking order natural to all animal groups. In other words, we expect our infants to rise above the vicious hierarchical games that we ourselves practice, as if they were a different and superior species.

Posted on September 8, 2010 at 12:10 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink

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