Spare the Rod… & other Inappropriate Conventional Wisdom Dealing with YouthJune 11th, 2010 at 16:04
Kids are obviously stakeholders in their own lives, and like most other stakeholders they generally want and deserve to have input into decisions made about the course of their lives, if not having the final say on those decisions. There seem to be a lot of adults, who play a stewardship role in kids’ lives as parents, teachers, etc. that don’t seem to get this. Or maybe relying on inappropriate myths or conventional cultural wisdom, they think their responsibility as stewards to these kids somehow trumps kids’ own right to self-direction.
We adults mostly understand this when dealing with other adults, and our society and most of its institutions basically “get it” that adult stakeholders should have input or even the final say in key decisions in their lives, unless they are say convicted criminals or judged mentally incompetent. This is a key element of the whole evolving concept of individualism over the past five centuries of human history and thought in the transition from feudal monarchies to citizen republics and free enterprise.
But when it comes to youth, our society and its institutions are often still inclined to use that older feudal model minimizing their input into the conduct of their own young lives. Youth are still often treated more as chattel than citizens.
Having said that, I will acknowledge that it makes sense that the whole idea of someone being categorized as a “youth” or a “child” is an indication that they are not considered ready to be granted the full rights and responsibilities of majority, including the political rights of a “citizen”. Adults given stewardship of one or more youths (as parents, educators, etc) have a significant legitimate responsibility making key decisions and setting parameters for the youth that they steward.
But to the extent that adults make all key decisions for youth and in many cases don’t even seek the youth’s input, they are basically treating that youth the way our society treats adult criminals or adults found to be mentally incompetent. I would argue that this behavior is not based on reality, but on a persistent but inappropriate cultural mythology, which is thousands of years old and was previously applied to adults as well, those adults who were slaves, serfs, women or otherwise seen as chattel.
Here is some of that conventional wisdom and cultural mythology that gets applied to informal and institutional relationships and interactions between adults and youth…
1. Children should be seen and not heard
I have always known this as one of the classic bromides from “the old days” that I assumed was basically archaic. The people I know in my Baby-Boom generation were not raised this way. Further, I have always thought that a generation of TV situation-comedies of family life, from “Good Times” in the early 70’s to “The Cosby Show” or “Fresh Prince” in the 90’s had to have put the final nail in that coffin that kids should not be heard.
But now from more of the perspective of the adult, and looking at how our education system is run, I see that this conventional wisdom is still enforced in most schools. Children should be “seen” (that is show up each morning in school or face disciplinary action) but not “heard” (not give input or participate in the governance of these institutions where they are required to spend so much time).
As formal and patriarchal as I imagine family life used to be under this dictate, I think much of our school system continues to be today, with this “rule” still essentially in force.
2. Spare the rod and spoil the child
This is the other classic of this conventional wisdom, famously providing the justification for paddling, switching, ruler on the knuckles, “the belt”, taking the kid “out to the wood shed”, or whatever form of corporal punishment was employed. “Call it spanking or whatever you want,” my mom (who did not believe in punishment of any kind) used to say, “It’s still hitting kids.”
Though most corporal punishment is now generally considered barbaric in our and many other cultures (while some other cultures still go so far as to kill youth, particularly sexually active young women, that misbehave), a non-physical corollary still generally holds sway in our culture, often voiced or written as “children need consequences”. Truly, everything you do in life has ramifications, but “consequences” used in this context I believe is a stand in for “the rod”. So the thinking goes, if kids are not punished for bad behavior, their natural willfulness and depravity will consume and ruin their ability to become disciplined adults.
I see this as a remnant of the Calvinist idea that human beings are by nature suffer from innate moral depravity (see my post on “American Calvin”).
Beyond these classics, I see an additional handful of (what I would call inappropriate) myths of modern conventional wisdom guiding adult stewardship of youth…
3. Adults must always be in control
In my thinking, this is a modern attempt to medicate the fear that since we are literally “sparing the rod” as a cultural norm, plus allowing kids to be “heard” (speak up, at least outside of school), that our kids will gain control of their lives, make irrevocably wrong choices and become “spoiled” goods, and humiliate us in our role as their adult stewards.
The myth is that if adults ever show a lack of leadership or resolve to make a decision in regard to the youth that they steward those youth will “walk all over them” in an “inmates running the asylum” scenario. This is more of that Calvinist innate moral depravity stuff.
The reality is that youth generally accept that adults are in a legitimate position of authority, unless the adults are abusing their power or the youth have a history of being brutalized or neglected by adults operating as their stewards. But just like most adults, kids deserve and need autonomy, and don’t want it rubbed in their faces that someone else is exercising authority over them. Attempting to live up to this myth leads some adults to make arbitrary and irrational decisions with regards to the youth that they steward fearing the alternative, which might be saying they don’t know or are not sure.
4. Adults deserve respect but youth must earn it
This is a principle from the purest form of hierarchical patriarchal control model. Youth, in the inferior position, must automatically respect their adult “superiors” or the whole hierarchy will break down. Adults agree to take care of and provide for the youth that they steward, but can condition respect based on compliance. When dealing with other adults in our contemporary culture, we will never acknowledge that this is an ethical practice. That said, it still happens in the forms of sexual, racial, or other discrimination.
Incidentally… both my kids used to report getting this sort of explicit lecture from some sort of administrator during their first week of school.
5. Youth need limits set for them
Note the phrasing here. The implication is that youth by default will not set limits for themselves or are incapable of doing so, so adults “shoot first” setting limits, even arbitrary ones for lack of logical ones, and contemplate what makes sense perhaps later.
We all have limits and need to understand what those limits are, but generally through thoughtful contemplation or trial and error we can figure out what those limits are. Adults, as responsible stewards, need at times to set limits to keep children physically and psychologically safe. But that’s the equivalent of giving people fish rather than teaching them to fish. More importantly for human development, an adult steward needs to help a kid develop their own ability to see and set their own limits. Denying kids the opportunity to learn this skill for themselves (including through difficult trial and error) is denying them the opportunity to develop their own compass and their own agency.
Some people would call all this “permissive”. But I feel the only thing that steering clear of this conventional wisdom permits is the quicker and more complete development of the next generation. I see a lot of adults get caught up in the above logic because they are afraid that to do otherwise, to perhaps follow more natural instincts and have genuine relationships with youth, will cause them to be judged as unfit for duty and “childish” themselves.