Friday, March 22, 2013

Mr. Rogers Week Day #2: Re-Humanizing Children

A couple of months ago, I did something that we all have to do from time to time, something that's never an enviable task: I called out some friends of mine for how they were talking about other people and told them it wasn't acceptable to me. Now, many of us in the left-leaning arena of politics may talk about the importance of stamping out words and speech that's racist, sexist, heterosexist, ablist and a variety of other nasty "ists" that keep us from recognizing each other's humanity. It's important work, much as it may make people feel put-upon from time to time.

What were my friends saying? They were referring to a very young child as, "it."

"Until it has a personality," they said, "It's not a human being."

Apparently, having human feelings doesn't count as having a personality.

I can't judge my friends too harshly for their view. After all, most of us have some nasty blind spot or another, and there's certainly nothing wrong with how they treat the children in their life. Furthermore, they were merely putting voice to something that is a very common cultural prejudice: children aren't people, except insofar as they can be useful and/or communicate themselves to us in terms that fit into our adult socialization.

My friends aren't the only ones afflicted with this kind of thinking. In college, I knew a girl who referred to pregnancy as being infected with a parasite, and I've seen plenty of women resort to expressing similar ideas as a means of defending their lack of interest in motherhood - a choice which shouldn't need a defense in any sane society. I've seen men earnestly suggest that children have no rights and should be treated, like livestock, as the property of their parents. And though I'm pro-choice, I honestly find jokes about "post birth abortion" to be in very poor taste. 

Culturally, this bleak, cruel view of children is demonstrated in how we treat them. We're not that far out from the days of common folk-wisdom like, "children should be seen and not heard," or from the times when children were born in order to serve as, essentially, slave labor on farms. Much of our world still sees children as no better than slaves, and there are those who would chip away at child labor laws even in the first world. Infant genital mutilation, in both boys and girls, is justified on the grounds that they "won't remember," despite ample medical evidence to the contrary (there are different kinds of memory).

What people seem to forget, of course, is that what happens to human beings as children shapes them into the adults they will become. We know this, of course, well enough to say it, but we seem to lack much in the real application of this knowledge.

Fred Rogers understood it, though, and this was the whole reason for his career.

Now, a somewhat lesser-known fact about the man is that he had some professional education in child development. He got this at a time when the prevalent academic approach would have focused most strongly on traditional psychoanalytic models. This is very dear to my heart, of course, because I've studied these myself and found an incredible amount of merit in them. These old-school models, in my opinion, are the real deal in terms of scientific understanding of the human psyche. Modern forms of therapy sometimes like to make a big show of rejecting traditional psychoanalysis, but they often unwittingly build their models and techniques on the basis of things that psychoanalysis has taught us in the first place.

One problem with psychoanalysis, of course, is that it can be cold and unfeeling, overly intellectual, even seemingly judgmental. Analysis, even very accurate analysis, is a hard and bitter pill to swallow if it comes without the warmth of human love and connection. Scientific language has very limited power when it comes to the heart. It's also pretty damn useless when it comes to working with children.

I mean...can you imagine?

"Okay, little Cindy, I've been thinking about our last session together and based on what we talked about, I'd like you to consider the possibility that you're experiencing some ambivalent emotions towards your parents as a result the social challenges you're facing at daycare. You find the experience of this ambivalence confusing and intolerable, so you're splitting your emotions into a black and white conception of your parents as "good" and your daycare providers as "bad.""

Nobody tries to use this sort of language with children. Why we try to use it to talk to the scared children inside adults is beyond me...

The language we do tend to use with children isn't much better. Sure, we know how to speak with simple enough words, but rarely do we have the ability to tap into what a child truly feels. You might think we could all do this easily, having once been children ourselves, but we are unwilling, or psychologically unable, to be in touch with those past emotional experiences.

The answer to why this is the case is as obvious as it is often overlooked:


Everything is new. You LITERALLY don't know which way is up until someone teaches you, you don't know which things will hurt you and how long pain will last when it comes. You're trying to make sense of it all, but the rules keep changing. You reach out for support and understanding, but chances are the adults around you don't get why you're so scared and confused because somehow, this chaotic nightmare makes sense to them. Sometimes, they get frustrated with you for how you feel and you have no way of knowing if that means you'll be abandoned to your own highly insufficient devices at any moment.

We all know this. We all remember this on a visceral, emotional and deeply-buried level that we sure as hell don't want to face. The cultural and personal process of dehumanizing children supports this denial. After all, isn't it easier to think of a child as an "it," as a smelly and unthinking little animal who screams for no reason, than it is to remember that once upon a time, each of us was that same frightened and helpless little creature?

What kind of courage is there, then, in a person who not only faces this horrifying fray of early emotions, but makes it his life's work to guide people through it, doing so every day with both sufficient strength and infinite gentleness?

What kind of courage does it take to become the sort of person who can do that?

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