Education by fear: old and new methods of child discipline – archive, 1932

Education by fear: old and new methods of child discipline – archive, 1932

12 November 1932: From Bertrand Russell to Mme Montessori, the expert advice given to parents can be baffling

Mr Fairchild or Mr Barlow, had they been asked for a definition of nursery discipline, would certainly have described something of the “Children should be seen and not heard” and “Do this because I say so” order. But the Fairchild children were often naughty, because papa and his tyrannies – mental and physical – were only repressive, not educative.

The people who believed in beating and starving a child into submission were the people who taught that God would send men to everlasting fire for not conforming to His standard of virtue. The principle is the same. Bertrand Russell, in his brilliant though perhaps biased book On Education, says that “he should certainly be horrified if his boy were half as badly behaved as the children in The Fairchild Family,” and so say all of us.

But Mr Russell is nevertheless an exponent of the school that warns a small child of possible consequences and then allows him to suffer. He illustrates his point with the story of how, having warned his little boy that if he ate too much chocolate he would be sick, he let him eat it. Fairness makes me add that the child was delighted when he fulfilled his father’s prophecy, but the physical upheaval (and the extra work for the womenfolk) was entirely unnecessary. There are people who maintain that the only way to prevent a child from playing with fire is to allow him to burn himself, and that the only way to prevent him from misusing knives is to allow him to cut himself, but these methods are merely re-establishing education by fear, in a modern dress.

Lighting the Geyser
A well-known psychologist, lecturing some time ago, added yet another voice to those which assert that the “Because I tell you” theory is dead. He explained that merely to forbid a self-assertive child to light a geyser is not only a waste of time but definitely bad education, and that the wise and effective procedure is to “treat him as an adult,’’ and to explain why he must not do it. The results of this method, in addition to the fact that the geyser will not be lit when your back is turned, are that the child is a colleague and not an unwilling slave, and that no thwarted desire lives on in his mind, as, once having been given the right point of view, he no longer wants to light the geyser at the wrong time.

So far so good, but it must not be forgotten – and the lecturer acknowledged this in the debate that followed his opening – that there are occasions when instant obedience is absolutely essential, and when explanations, if given, must follow blind acquiescence. Take, for instance, the following; “If a child pointing a loaded gun at a companion is going to wait until he has had the effect of pressing the trigger explained to him before he puts it down, the chances are that the conscientious parent will have the explanation taken out of his hands.”

The well trained child will, of course, immediately obey the order of someone he trusts because experience has taught him that the order would not have been given unless it were necessary and reasonable, but before this point of development has been reached there are undoubtedly occasions on which common sense and common sense only is the true key to the situation.

To get the beat results we must certainly have as few restrictions as possible. But there must be a few fixed points, and they must really be fixed. We should remember that, with young children especially, it is uncertainty that leads to trouble. If when the authorities are in a yielding mood bedtime is a movable ceremony, constant friction is inevitable. The parable of the importunate widow is not one that should be prematurely forced upon the notice of the young.

Mme Montessori, who is among our greatest workers in this field, maintains that even bedtime should not be enforced against the child’s inclinations. The objections to this standpoint are several. First, it is shifting the parent’s responsibility on to immature shoulders; the child’s experience is insufficient to decide whether extra play now is worth the consequences (to himself and others) of overtiredness tomorrow. Secondly, the child, although “a person,” is not the only person in the universe, and he must learn to adapt himself to others. Thirdly, if the child is definitely encouraged always to consider carefully exactly what he feels like doing at the moment, he will naturally learn to attach more and more importance to his personal likes and dislikes as opposed to the greatest good of the majority, and this is wholly bad.

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Fuente de la Información: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/nov/12/education-by-fear-examining-old-and-new-methods-of-nursery-discipline

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