Children need wild, unlimited hours, but this time is in short supply for many, who are diarised into wall-to-wall activities, scheduled from the moment they wake until the minute they sleep, every hour accounted for by parents whose actions are prompted by the fear their child may fall behind in the rat race that begins in the nursery. Loving their child, not wanting them to be lifelong losers, parents push them to achieve through effective time-use. Society instils a fear of the future that can be appeased only by sacrificing present play and idleness, and children feel the effects in stress and depression.
In many traditional cultures, however, children are held to be the best judges of their own needs, including how they spend their time. …
Letting children have their own way? Doing just what they like? Wouldn’t that be a total disaster? Yes, if parents perform only the first half of the trick. In the cultural lexicon of modernity, self-will is often banally understood as brattish, selfish behaviour. Will does not mean selfishness, however, and autonomy over oneself is not a synonym for nastiness towards others – quite the reverse. Ngarinyin children in Australia traditionally grew up uncommanded and uncoerced, but from a young age they learned socialisation. That is the second half of the trick. Children are socialised into awareness and respect for the will and autonomy of others, so that, when necessary as they grow, they will learn to hold their own will in check in order to maintain good relations. For a community to function well, an individual may on occasion need to rein in his or her own will but, crucially, not be compelled to do so by someone else. …
Will is a child’s motive force: it impels a child from within, whereas obedience compels a child from without. Those who would overrule a child’s will take “obedience” as their watchword, as they fear disobedience and disorder and believe that if a child is not controlled, there will be chaos. But these are false opposites. The true opposite of obedience is not disobedience but independence. The true opposite of order is not disorder but freedom. The true opposite of control is not chaos but self-control.
The attempts of parents to make their children virtuous are generally little else than attempts to keep them in ignorance of vice. They are little else than attempts to teach their children to know and prefer truth by keeping them in ignorance of falsehood. They are little else than attempts to make them seek and appreciate health by keeping them in ignorance of disease and of everything that will cause disease. They are little else than attempts to make their children love the light by keeping them in ignorance of darkness. In short, they are little else than attempts to make their children happy by keeping them in ignorance of everything that causes them unhappiness.
In so far as parents can really aid their children in the latter’s search after happiness, by simply giving them the results of their (the parents’) own reason and experience, it is all very well, and is a natural and appropriate duty. But to practice coercion in matters of which the children are reasonably competent to judge for themselves is only an attempt to keep them in ignorance.
And this is as much a tyranny, and as much a violation of the children’s right to acquire knowledge for themselves, and such knowledge as they desire, as is the same coercion when practiced upon older persons. Such coercion, practiced upon children, is a denial of their right to develop the faculties that Nature has given them, and to be what Nature designs them to be. It is a denial of their right to themselves, and to the use of their own powers. It is a denial of their right to acquire the most valuable of all knowledge, to wit, the knowledge that Nature, the great teacher, stands ready to impart to them.
The results of such coercion are not to make the children wise or virtuous, but to make them ignorant, and consequently weak and vicious — and to perpetuate through them, from age to age, the ignorance, the superstitions, the vices, and the crimes of the parents. This is proved by every page of the world’s history.