Good Morning December 11, 2016

Good morning on this the eleventh day of December in the year of our Lord 2016.

I had an interesting exchange with my four year old son today:

Child: I want my [specific toy].

Me: Where did you last have it?

Child: In my hand.

Me: That’s… true.

It’s always funny when children answer questions in a very literal way, and it gets to the heart of what I think is a common misunderstanding of children: the idea that children are irrational. (There is, I think, a true idea that children are irrational in the sense of what changes at the age of reason, which is to say, when they seem to gain the ability to reason in an abstract manner, but that’s not what I mean and isn’t, generally, what people mean either.)

In particular, children aren’t nearly so much irrational as inexperienced. In a theoretical sense, knowledge and what you do with it are two separate things. This is related to the distinction of knowledge coming from experience and wisdom from learning the right lessons from that experience. Children take questions—like my question above—literally not because they can’t conceive of any wider meaning, but because they have no experience which suggests any wider meaning. Most of the things we say in life we mean very literally. “Don’t draw on the table with that crayon” does not have an esoteric meaning. “Do you need to use the potty” does not allude to any large topic with complex considerations. “Do you want a PB&J or Grilled Cheese?” touches on no subtleties. But when I ask my child where he had his toy last, this does bring up some of the complexities of looking for lost items; or at least it is meant to. But the child can only know that by this question being a prelude to trying to conjure in his imagination where the object was.

And as an incidental detail of child raising, it turns out that doing this is in fact a learned skill. I can remember with my oldest child helping him to find things several times by doing the very simple, “where were you when you last had it” and then going and looking there. They learn that skill very quickly, though, since it’s so effective, and it only take a few repetitions before they go look on their own and only ask for help when it’s not where they remember playing with it last.

There’s another interaction I can recall, which shows a similar pattern:

Me: Stop hitting your brother with Optimus Prime!

Child: Puts down optimus prime, picks up Bumblebee, starts hitting brother with Bumblebee.

The child wasn’t trying to get by on a technicality. In the first few months of hitting one’s brother, there are a lot of complex lessons to learn, such as that the objection to optimus prime (which I didn’t explicitly state) is not some special thing about Optimus Prime which I know and the child didn’t and so he just had to trust me, but that Optimus Prime was made of hard plastic, which the child can know himself, and consequently that this same objection holds to Bumblebee, who is also made of hard plastic. By contrast, when the children are hitting each other with balloons, I don’t object, because the balloons are soft and have little mass and can’t hurt anyone. But it takes a lot of data for the child to figure out what’s common to the few things he and his brother may hit each other with and what’s common to the many things he may not. He’s not trying to see what he can get away with, but just utterly lacking the experience of adults in knowing what actually hurts people.

And part of how you know that he lacks this experience is that he makes the exact same mistakes when applied to himself. He does things which hurt himself and is surprised at the result. For example, it seems that children will not believe you about not snapping rubber bands on themselves until they’ve done it hard enough to cry at it. They’re not attempting to lawyer their way through technicalities, but to navigate a big and complex world with a great many twists and turns in it without any data.

This same problem does affect adults interacting with each other, by the way. Except that while with children we expect them to not know what we know—at least somewhat expect it, anyway—it’s all too common for adults to assume that all other adults know what they know, and furthermore to hold it to be a failing if the other adult doesn’t know it. This results in a great deal of miscommunication, since on any complex subject we only say a small fraction of what we mean (for efficiency’s sake) and require the listener to interpret most of our meaning based on shared knowledge and context. Especially on the internet, which throws together people with vastly differing backgrounds, it’s a very good idea to make sure of what someone’s unstated context really is before you assume you know what they mean. Don’t go full Wittgenstein—never go full Wittgenstein—but it is true that a great many philosophical and political disagreements turn out to be misunderstandings. There are enough real disagreements in the world; it’s unhelpful to shrowd them in a haze of miscommunication.

God bless you.

Good Morning December 7th, 2016

Good morning on this the seventh day of December in the year of our Lord 2016.

I was joking last night with someone who doesn’t have children yet but wants to that the myth that children sleep is a lie spread by the pajama industry. Obviously this isn’t literally true—at a minimum the bedding industry must be involved too. But it does remind me of a great quote from Chesterton about how common the experience of human life is, especially at its most core elements:

For at present we all tend to one mistake; we tend to make politics too important. We tend to forget how huge a part of a man’s life is the same under a Sultan and a Senate, under Nero or St Louis. Daybreak is a never-ending glory, getting out of bed is a never-ending nuisance; food and friends will be welcomed; work and strangers must be accepted and endured; birds will go bedwards and children won’t, to the end of the last evening.

I do not know from personal experience whether birds actually will go to their beds, but I can testify that children certainly won’t.

It is an amazing privilege to bring children into the world and care for them and teach them what it is to be human. It is also a great deal of work. Most good things are.

God bless you.

No One Preaches Radical Freedom to Children

Radical freedom, if you’re not familiar with the term, is basically just “do as you will is the whole of the law”. There are many variants of it, but in general it’s the proposition that there are no binding constraints upon a person’s actions—no good or evil—except what they themselves impose.

If this sounds like pure madness, it is, but it’s always coupled with some variant of the belief that humans are innately good and never (or very rarely) want to do wrong, so the people who profess it always assume that it will produce the exact same results but with less guilt. You can see this in the ads by an atheist group on the side of buses—I believe it was in London—saying, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying an enjoy your life.” A friend said that a famous atheist once answered a question about morality if nothing is forbidden because God is dead, “I’ve already murdered the number of people I want to: zero.”

In defense of the people who propose ideas like this, they’re not complete idiots and do know that there are people who do murder, steal, rape, etc. There isn’t a single response to that, but I think in most cases they classify anyone who does this as mentally ill and think all such behavior should be dealt with medically.

You could even make a case that Ayn Rand should be classified as a preacher of radical freedom, since her version of radical selfishness was somehow supposed to involve everyone working together towards the common good. (They were supposed to realize that cooperation to mutual benefit was their best way to benefit. I think they’re also supposed to recoil in horror from benefiting at the expense of another or by receiving anything which they haven’t earned. Because that’s obvious to everyone who is rational. I’ll wait until you’ve stopped laughing to type more.)

But something I’ve noticed about everyone who preaches radical freedom is that they never preach this to children.  They always wait until somebody who doesn’t believe in radical freedom has painstakingly, over many years, trained children children to do what is right rather than whatever they want to do, until the children largely want to do what is right, by habit. Only then do the preachers preach radical freedom. Then they look and notice that people who are largely set in their ways don’t much vary their ways if they start believing that anything goes and conclude they were right that radical freedom is harmless.

Or at least people don’t vary their ways much at first. Another thing I’ve noticed is that the people who preach radical freedom don’t tend to follow up, over decades, with the people they’ve converted. Not that it would matter, since if any of their followers do bad things, it is because they were defective, or mentally ill, or irrational, or whatever, and never because all human beings face temptation and need support in virtue.

And they never seem to ask what happens to the children raised by their followers. In part, of course, people tend to abandon radical freedom as a doctrine once they’re forced to raise children because telling a child that what they really want to do is share their favorite toy is just so utterly doomed to abject failure that almost no one ever tries it. And of course when followers practice some amount of realism raising their children, they are no longer followers, or are heretical followers, or just don’t show up to the monthly do-whatever-you-want meetings because children make it hard to belong to clubs. Whatever the reason, the preachers of radical freedom never talk about the practical aspects of raising children. And in the end, I suppose it shouldn’t be shocking that people who never consider how to raise children should be unaware that degeneration generally happens by generations.