Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Education and the Good Life, Chapter IV

Chapter IV (pages 101-122), “Fear”

“By the time the child is six years old, moral education ought to be nearly complete; that is to say, the further virtues which will be required in later years ought to be developed by the boy or girl spontaneously, as a result of good habits already existing and ambitions already stimulated [p. 101].” Healthy two-year olds are well poised for a happy existence, as their powers and freedom of movement increase. They show curiosity and take delight in all new sensations. They can develop new fears, however. Surely some of these fears are acquired from mimicking the fears of the adults they see; others, though, arise out of instinct, including (probably) the fear of some unfamiliar things. [Russell quotes at some length William Stern, the developer of the concept of IQ, on the innate fear of the unfamiliar.] Herds of cows or horses have such fears -- for example, of mechanical toys, as I (Russell) have witnessed firsthand. I (again, Russell) cured my son’s fears of quickly moving shadows and mechanical toys by demonstrating the mechanism that led to these phenomena. This curative process took longer when the feared object was a whoopee cushion. [OK, Russell describes the dreadful item as “a cushion which emitted a long melancholy whine after being sat upon or pressed [p. 107].”] All such fears should slowly be confronted and overcome.

Real dangers, such as falls from heights, should be explained rationally, but the adults should do so with calm reason, and not in a fearful vein. “A grown-up person in charge of a child should never feel fear [p. 109].” Russell describes his own rather uncompromising approach to getting his toddler son to no longer fear the (very cold!) sea, and relates (footnote, page 111) his own even less compromising education on that score. There is something to be said for forceful methods of education if they are employed to overcome irrational fears. The boy who succeeds will be happy and proud of his triumph. As children get older, it is other children (including older siblings) who teach physical courage – and girls need as strong a dose of courage as boys. Instilling the habit of acting with courage reduces the need to call on willpower.

Russell endorses the advice of Dr. Rivers on overcoming fear by acquiring skills to manipulate matter, such as learning to ride a bike. Developing a talent for managing a boat in poor weather, for instance, is a better way of engendering courage than are physical battles among children, even of the organized sports variety. Children, both boys and girls, should be taught to endure small harms without much ado.

Courage in the non-physical realm is more important than physical courage, but bodily bravery might be a pre-requisite for building the higher species of courage. Superstitions around eclipses or earthquakes, for instance, derive from fears of the mysterious. Acquainting children with the scientific explanation of some mysteries will allow them to generalize, to think that there also are non-superstitious explanations for mysteries that they still cannot understand. At that point, mysteries can spur exploration and study.

One mystery children are faced with at an early age is death, and eventually they understand that their parents’ deaths are inevitable, as is their own. Belief in an afterlife can ease the pain of such understanding. Nevertheless, parents whom themselves hold no such belief should not try to instill it in their children just for the sake of comfort: “no consideration on earth justifies a parent in telling lies to his child. It is best to explain that death is a sleep from which people do not wake [p. 119].” Nor should parents impart this information in a dramatic fashion. There is little to be said for anyone to get to brooding about death.

Children should be made comfortable around strangers, in part by not pressing manners too aggressively upon them. They will respond positively to manners when they are at an age where they can appreciate that parents (and others) have rights that must be respected: children have a knack for understanding justice.

Don’t show fear yourself if you would keep your child from being fearful. “Life is full of perils, but the wise man ignores those that are inevitable, and acts prudently but without emotion as regards those that can be avoided [p. 121].” Instill wide and strong interests so that your child does not later dwell upon the possibilities for ill fortune.

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