Children cannot be trained in social behaviour

By Henning Köhler, May 2012

“While people generally believe that they can be an awful lot to children, the point, above all, is to disrupt as little as possible what wants to emerge [from the child],” Rudolf Steiner says. Hence we need an educational method “exercised in love through which the child ... can educate himself or herself through us without its freedom being put at risk.” 

If we argue in favour of an education in freedom, it triggers a peculiar flurry of “yes, buts” in many people.

Yes, but ... children need boundaries! Yes, but ... they have to learn to fit in! Yes, but ... if everyone does what they want there will be chaos! Yes, but ... children are egocentric, they don’t know what to do with freedom! Yes, but ... you first of all have to teach them to have consideration for other people! ... Anyone who constantly spouts such words becomes a prisoner of the “but”, while the “yes” turns into a pure formality. When Steiner says freedom, however, that is what he means. Without constant relativisation. He does, nevertheless, call on us to thoroughly think things through.

Social learning, for example, requires some clarification. Many people believe that children need to be trained in social competence. Against their will. But in fact social competence develops without compulsion – or not at all. The only thing that can be enforced in this area is merely opportunistic behaviour.

In Steiner’s Philosophy of Freedom it says: “Freedom [is] the human form of being ethical.” Ethical principles received “from outside” rob us of our freedom. By contrast, finding the source of morality within ourselves and drawing on it is a profound experience of freedom. Steiner calls this creative act moral intuition. We are therefore capable of directly grasping desirable, social inter-human qualities through “perceptive feeling” (Edmund Husserl). That also applies to children, of course.

Their ability to grasp what is ethical and moral is purely intuitive. That is precisely the reason why “prescribed morality” produces nothing more than the dark urge to jettison it as quickly as possible.

How do children become acquainted with the quality of comforting someone, for example? How do they integrate such a gesture into their repertoire of behaviour? Through instruction? Through comfort training? Of course not! Someone comforts little Jimmy. Or he sees how is mother comforts his baby sister. That action touches him deeply. He does not need any instruction to understand the significance of the event and will himself comfort someone else as the occasion arises, and he will do so with a sure sense of the situation. It is as if little Jimmy only needed a prompt to remember something which he has always known. The whole thing depends, of course, on him experiencing an authentic scene of someone comforting someone else, in contrast to something that is pretence.

Thus and in no other way does social learning happen. When children imitate basic social gestures which are directly meaningful to them with profound interest, they experiences themselves as free beings.

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