What we think a child is will inform how we treat them, how we teach them, and relate to them. What we think children are, and what we think childhood means is intrinsically wrapped up with what we think humans are.
There are those who see all children as innocent, and those for whom children are monstrous little barbarians who have to be humanised and civilized. Here the science is fairly clear. Children by nature have a pretty good sense of fair play (sorry, no links, but this stuff isn’t hard to find). It appears that the more selfish and unpleasant behaviours are the learned ones, not the innate ones.
However, if we believe children are uncivilized monsters by nature, what we have to do to ‘break them in’ and tame them becomes an issue. This doesn’t tend to go with gentle, child-centred learning. It does tend to go with colonial mindsets and beliefs that ‘uncivilized’ people are inferior.
When it comes to education, it’s been popular to think that children are blank slates, or empty vessels and that filling the child with ideas is the job of the educator. This isn’t supported by the available evidence – children absorb impressions and ideas from the moment of arrival in the world and by the time they get to school they definitely aren’t empty vessels. They learn naturally through messing about and exploration – something the entire western approach to education ignores in favour of making them sit still and learn to do as they are told.
One of the most pernicious stories about childhood is that children do not know what they want or need and must have adults make those decisions for them. A child who is allowed to develop and hold opinions will have no trouble doing so. A child who is never allowed to learn through their own mistakes or evolve personal preferences won’t know how to do that. It’s not about what children are capable of, in this area, it’s about what they are allowed.
Do we think children need to be punished for mistakes, or educated to do better? Do we raise them to be questioning free thinkers, or do we want them to be quiet and obedient? Do we consider them capable of genuine malice? Do we look at their behaviour and ask where they have learned it? Do we think they should be sitting down quietly or do we think they belong outside? Do we assume they will automatically be natural in nature, or might they need some guidance?
It is so easy to project personal values and assumptions onto children. They aren’t well placed to resist. They are malleable and informed by their environments, so what adults decide is true and real for them can be imposed and made real, often. Treat a child like a monster, and you may well end up with a monster. Or a child who is anxious and can’t function properly. Treat a child like they can’t think for themselves and they won’t learn how to and you’ll get teenagers who cannot function. Treat a child like they can do things and they will – there’s a great deal of evidence from indigenous peoples around this one.
A child is not an empty thing waiting to be filled or shaped by adults. When we treat them like people, they have a much better time of it.