Sunday, March 31, 2013

Why curious children become scared adults

Monte Floyd Hancock Jr. said:
I like children; I find that I can be myself around them without having to worry about offending someone by "talking over their heads". Nothing is over a little kid's head! Heck, you can talk with little guys about Reimann surfaces, quotient topologies, simplicial homology, Stieltjes Integrals, Borel Fields, Banach spaces... and they will have something to say about every one of them. They aren't worried about what you think; they are telling you what they think, and you can do whatever you want with it... what's wrong with that?
 Sometimes at church I go into the 18-24 month classroom and sit down on the floor with my research notebook. The little guys come running over because they want to write in my book. I carry ink pens that "click"... it's a miracle! It "clicks", and then it makes marks! Or, I'll spin blocks on their corners, or balance things in unusual ways; they are amazed by everything, because everything is NEW...
...not at all like my grad students. When I walk into my classroom on the first day of a new term, I can see and smell the fear. Why? Because the students have been beaten down by years of small-minded "formal education", and the amazement has been replaced with FEAR. It's a lousy trade... a trade that I will not make, nor will I allow them to make. If we can't enjoy each other, then what's the point?
You know what I'd really like to do? I'd like to walk into class and gather everyone together on the floor. Then I would show them my research notebook, and hand each one a pen...

That raises the question: Why do curious children become scared adults?

Tests are bad. Homework is bad. Forcing kids to learn things they don't want to learn is bad. And most important of all, punishment is bad. And all of these things play a role in causing the change some people go through from curious child to scared adult. Without these things, a person would go from curious child to curious adult.

Why are these things bad for children? How do these things cause people to lose their curiosity? The answer requires an understanding of how people reason.

Reason is how people think. Children reason too, its not just adults. Children often notice contradictions in their parents arguments and point them out, 'na'ah yesterday you said X but today you're saying NOT X.' Being able to notice contradictions is the second most fundamental feature of how people think, the first being the ability to create concepts.

So what's the problem? What does this have to do with how people change from curious to fearful? Well the answer has to do with how parents react to their children when they disagree. If the parent uses reason, then things go well. But if the parent switches to anti-reason, e.g. punishing the child for not obeying, then things go badly. Repeatedly treating children this way causes them to learn anti-rational memes[1] -- these are the memes that cause people to stop thinking, to switch from reason to anti-reason. And by the time they are adults, they have lost their love of reason and its been replaced with a fear of confrontation/disagreement/criticism. And its these anti-rational memes that cause the fear emotion when they are presented with criticism, or when they think they might be mistaken, or when they know that learning something means that they might make mistakes.

Note that by punishment, I'm talking about a lot more things than just spanking. I'm talking about timeouts, facial expressions and tones intended to communicate that the child should feel shame, social outcasting at home and school, etc. All of these things share the same quality, anti-reason. And they all cause people to learn anti-rational memes because they all communicate that judgment should be evaluated by authority, rather than by reason -- by the authority of parents, teachers, principals, friends.

Thinking without reason means deferring to the authority of other people's judgment. But because the thinking is done without reason, its impossible for the person to know whether or not the other person's reasoning is flawed, or whether or not its void of reasoning altogether as in the case of people making unargued conclusions (i.e. unexplained assertions).

I just realized that I just described a first-hander and a second-hander[2]. The first-hander is the curious child that became the curious adult -- he judges ideas with reason. The second-hander is the curious child that became the scared adult -- he now judges ideas by the authority of other people's judgment.

So how should parents treat their children instead? Like this

[1] Anti-rational memes, and meme theory in general, are explained in _The Beginning of Infinity_, by David Deutsch.

[2] First-handed and second-handed thinking are explained in _Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology_, by Ayn Rand. You can also learn a lot about first-hand vs second-hand thinking from her novels _The Fountainhead_ and _Atlas Shrugged_.

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