The Needs and Rights of Children:
Steps to Take
by John Holt
|Paul Goodman, in his many talks
with young people, used to say that one good way to work for a
truly different and better world was to act in their daily lives,
as far they could, as if that world existed. What would you do, he
would ask them, if the world had become more or less the kind of
place you want it to be; how would you live, how would you treat
other people? Live that way now, treat them that way now. If
something prevents you, try to find a way to deal with that. We
can begin to treat children, even the youngest and smallest,
wherever we may find them, as we would want everyone to treat them
in the society we are trying to make.
We can begin by trying to be courteous to them. This will be
very difficult for those who have been taught by experience only
to be servile to the strong and rude and bossy toward the weak or
those who have learned to think of children as love objects and to
treat them as they would a favorite dog or cat. For to be
courteous we must first of all respect the other person's dignity
and sense of self. We must treat him with a certain formality and
reserve until we find out how he would like to be treated. We must
respect not just his physical but his emotional life space until
he shows us how far into that space he is ready to welcome us. And
though being courteous means much more than merely being polite,
it means at least that. So we must try to learn to say
"Please" or "Excuse Me" or "Thank
You" to children, and in the same tone of voice we would use
to anyone else. We must not treat a child like a servant and
demand from him favors or services that we would not think of
asking of someone our own age. Indeed, because he is new in this
world, and gets his sense of it from how we be- have toward him,
we would do well to show him extra courtesy like the wise parents
who said to me once that most of the time they tried to behave
toward their then four-year-old son as if he were a very
distinguished visitor from a strange and alien civilization,
knowing little but eager to learn about how we do things here.
Another small way to be courteous is by respecting and
protecting the child's right to privacy. Until the law gives to
him as it does to us (at least on paper) the right to be free from
arbitrary search and seizure, we should act as if he had that
right. This means, among other things, not going into a child's
room without asking, and receiving, permission. Many children's
rooms have signs saying, "Keep Out!,"
"Danger," "Absolutely Private," and the like.
This fierceness may amuse us but it may well be a child's
desperate clutch at a privacy and dignity he has never had and
does not expect to get. Many children who put up such signs know
that they won't be respected, that "their" room is as
open to other people as any room in their house.
And privacy means privacy of thought as well as space.
Too many people think they have a right and duty to know almost
everything their child is doing or even thinking. They ask,
"What did you do in school today?" to which the child
very often replies, "Nothing." He only means,
"Nothing that I want to talk about." Or perhaps,
"Nothing that I want (or dare) talk to you about – at least
right now." People who really like hearing what their
children have been doing don't usually have to ask them.
reprinted with permission of Holt
Associates. For reprint inquiries, write to info@HoltGWS.com
Originally published as Chapter 28, Escape from Childhood: The Needs and Rights of Children.
New York: Ballantine Books, 1974.