Are children little devils or little angels?
Trick question: they're neither. They're little Homo sapiens (sometimes known as Pan narrans), with all that that entails. That means that they're animals, not angels or devils. I don't mean that as an insult. I'm an animal. So are you. What else could you be? You're not a plant, or an abstract concept like "justice", and the state of the art of artificial intelligence is not good enough for you to be a robot. Even if you believe that you have a soul (whatever that is!) your soul doesn't stop you from hurting when you stub your toe, or let you flap your arms and fly, or see electric fields. We can do what our bodies can do, and nothing more.
As animals, our wetware has certain modes of behaviour, and one of those is that we learn. We learn a lot. We're the ultimate learning machines on the planet, at least until 20 or so.
(Animals and machines? Sure, why not? We're machines made of meat instead of steel and plastic. If you think that's an insult to the dignity of human beings, that's only because you're thinking of machines as those clanking, primitive piles of junk like cars and grandfather clocks and space shuttles. What you should be thinking of is the other machines, like eagles and dolphins and tigers and cobras, of hearts and muscles and eyes and nerves. There's nothing clanking about them. The simplest, most basic cell in the human machine is a million times more complex than the most advanced metal-and-plastic thing we can yet make. We'll catch up, eventually, and make machines worthy of being called "alive", but for now, there's a great yawning chasm between meat machines and metal machines. The metal machines might be stronger and tougher, but let's see them make new machines without our help, huh?)
But I digress... so, little children are learning machines. They soak in data like a sponge, and they learn. Depending on what they learn, we label them as little angels or little devils. But in fact they're neither: they're just risen apes, and we older, supposedly wiser risen apes should be helping them to grow into the best apes they can be.
The problem is, they have this annoying habit of learning things that we don't want them to learn. I don't mean such trivialities such as four-letter words, but things like temper tantrums.
There's an imperial ton of advice out there about raising children (and that's bigger than a metric ton). Most of it is bad advice, because it is based on wishful thinking that kiddies are little angels, or little devils, rather than the reality that they're Homo sapiens.
In civilized countries, you won't find many people willing to publicly talk about "beating the Devil out of children" (although there's always a few barbarians who will privately do so), but there's still plenty of folk who will talk about sparing rods and spoiling children without any clue whatsoever about how to get maximum learning from the minimum brutality. If that sounds harsh, it's because I have a generally low opinion of those who mindlessly quote Biblical aphorisms, not because I am philosophically opposed to mild corporal punishment when necessary.
Unfortunately, parenting skills are very low. There's no classes we can take, the books we buy all contradict each other, and when we do what was done to us, the chances are we're just repeating the same lousy mistakes our parents made.
So, what to do? I was going to spend time searching high and low on the Internet looking for serious academic sites to back up the following assertions, but it's the wee hours of the morning and I need to sleep sometime. So I'll fall back on the tried and true Argument By Assertion, and say if you don't believe this, do your own research. You know where Google is.
It's about the timing.
Conditioning is not the only way we Homo sapiens learn, but it is an important part of it. That's the way our brains work: behaviour which is rewarded becomes more likely to be repeated, and behaviour which is given negative reinforcement becomes less likely. Not all learning is based on conditioning, but a lot of it is, especially for children (but also for adults!). The refusal to accept the reality of how we learn means that we are doomed to implement ineffective or even counter-productive teaching strategies, and then wonder why our children aren't learning the lessons we intended them to learn.
The most important factor about reinforcement is the timing. If it doesn't happen immediately, it might as well never happen at all. Yes, people can -- eventually -- learn delayed gratification, but that takes time, and three year olds don't have those skills yet. There's probably nothing, short of brutal physical abuse, less useful and more harmful to a child's ability to grow into a decent human being than "Wait until your father comes home!".
To give a concrete example: when your child screams and cries in the store because he or she wants a candy bar, if you give him or her a candy bar you have just reinforced the temper tantrum behaviour. It's hard to ignore a screaming child, especially when everyone else is giving you those Looks that say "control your brat!", but if you don't ignore it, you're just reinforcing the tantrum. And no, spanking the child isn't going to help, not if the only attention it ever gets is when you smack it. Children will take bad attention over inattention every time.
Just like adults really.
There's more here and here on Violent Acres. They're hardly scholarly articles, and there's some adult language so watch those nanny-filters, but they're worth reading.
Monday, March 03, 2008
Are children little devils or little angels?