Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Education and the Good Life, Chapter III

Part II, “Education of Character”

Chapter III (pages 87-100), “The First Year”

The chapter title refers to the first year of life, not the first year of formal education. Formerly the standard was to believe that mothers and nurses possess instinctual knowledge of the best methods of bringing up infants – but they do not. Many children are harmed irremediably through the poor choices of well-intentioned caregivers. Science can provide the tools, for those parents who will take the instruction, to decrease infant mortality and to improve the prospects for enhanced physical and intellectual health as children grow.

Most of the life of a newborn “is passed in a vague bewilderment, from which relief is found by sleeping most of the twenty-four hours [pp. 88-89].” Within a few weeks, though, infants acquire habits, to which they are most passionately attached: infants are natural conservatives. So it is of primary importance that initial habits be good ones, not bad ones. Fortunately, the habits that will promote health also are those that will promote a desirable character. A regular schedule of feeding – not one that habitually responds to cries – is good for digestion and avoids reinforcing complaining by rewarding it. Those who develop the habit of getting what they want by fussing will later be disappointed in the world, at least to the extent that they are not sufficiently powerful to induce adults to continue to placate them. So for infants, caregivers must negotiate a tricky region “between neglect and indulgence [p. 91].” Real physical discomfort must be alleviated for health, but fussing for attention cannot be reinforced, lest the child “quickly develop into a tyrant [p. 91].” [Later (page 99), Russell notes that carers must mask their fears for a child’s health, to prevent the transmission of anxiety.] Infants should be viewed as serious humans, as adults in training. They should not therefore be given an exaggerated sense of their importance.

[Russell is advocating what now is known as controlled crying or controlled comforting ; this technique seems to be controversial, particularly when applied to very young infants. Russell indicates (a bit later, on page 94) that crying both is an indicator of pain in infants and (eventually) a strategy to pursue pleasure. The development of this strategy is sort of an initial birth of reason in the young. While I am interrupting, I can’t resist appending a little Adam Smith, on the anxiety of a mother fearing for her child’s health, from the opening pages of The Theory of Moral Sentiments: “What are the pangs of a mother, when she hears the moanings of her infant that during the agony of disease cannot express what it feels? In her idea of what it suffers, she joins, to its real helplessness, her own consciousness of that helplessness, and her own terrors for the unknown consequences of its disorder; and out of all these, forms, for her own sorrow, the most complete image of misery and distress. The infant, however, feels only the uneasiness of the present instant, which can never be great. With regard to the future, it is perfectly secure, and in its thoughtlessness and want of foresight, possesses an antidote against fear and anxiety, the great tormentors of the human breast, from which reason and philosophy will, in vain, attempt to defend it, when it grows up to a man.”]

Russell continues to pound this limited-coddling theme, which seems to accord with a British upper class and stiff-upper-lip mentality: “…parents should be breezy and cheerful and rather matter-of-fact where the child’s possible ailments are concerned [p. 92].” Babies should spend most of their non-feeding time asleep. Raise children to minimize their trouble for the grown-ups. “The right rule is: encourage spontaneous activities, but discourage demands upon others [p. 92].” Inculcating self-discipline, even in the first year, will allow future education to be conducted with minimal external discipline. Swaddling, however, prevents the spontaneous fun that babies can generate for themselves – even though bound babies are less trouble to manage. Rattles and wind-propelled toys, along with their own fingers and toes, can be an endless source of amusement and instruction for the very young. Nonetheless, the first few months of life are boring, but trying to overcome the boredom with external stimulation will interfere with an infant’s necessary sleep. The regular routine that is so important for very young children is complemented by familiar surroundings, which promote feelings of safety.

Within a few months, infants can develop social relationships with people, and a desire for approval manifests itself. Praise and blame then become tools that teachers can manipulate. Nonetheless, blame should be avoided in the first year, and used quite sparingly later. Praise, too, must be rationed, to maintain its value; it is always proper to praise, though, when a child succeeds through extensive effort. “The great incentive to effort, all through life, is experience of success after initial difficulties [p. 98].” We learn by doing ourselves, not by watching or listening to others. If the barriers to success are too great, however, they will lead to discouragement. Praise should not be used when a child does something regular and expected, such as eating or sleeping, as the child will now see its ability to displease you by not performing as expected to be a source of power. Children have some limitations, but a lack of either intelligence or the potential to behave strategically are not among them.

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