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Orphaned boys were perhaps the cheapest Taliban recruits. An incensed Afghan official in one village presented [U.S. military anthropologist] Tracy with a boy who had wandered into the district governor’s compound a month earlier. The boy wore an explosive vest that the Taliban had told him would burst with flowers and candy, but he didn’t know how to make the vest work.
–from “Human Quicksand: For the US Army, a crash course in cultural studies” by Steve Featherstone, Harper’s magazine, Sept 2008

I’ve discovered something about myself recently: I’m sometimes made almost physically ill by the idea of helpless kids at the mercy of stupid adults. Since “stupid” describes all adults some of the time (yes, me) and some adults all of the time, and we all find ourselves primarily at the mercy of adults for our first 18 years, it’s a not uncommon problem.

Sometimes it’s fictional. Take the unbearable scene from the movie Babel in which a series of bad choices by adults leaves two kids alone in the desert with their terrified nanny, who leaves for help, then returns with said help but cannot find them.

The shot of the empty spot of ground where they had been, followed by the nanny’s anguished face, haunted me for weeks.

childsoldierThen there are thousands of real-world examples, from the ghastly and bizarre (children drowned in their car seats or bathtubs, kept in underground bunkers for 13 years) to the commonplace (children whacked in the head, taught to hate, deprived of education or vaccines) to horrors both ghastly and common in some places. Children told the C-4 in their vest is peppermint would qualify, as would the estimated quarter million “child soldiers” fighting in conflicts worldwide right now.

(I guess I should have warned you at the top that this post was headed into the darkness. I happened on that Harper’s article again last night for the third time, and it got me connecting loose ends—especially this idea of kids at the mercy of adults at their worst. It lightens up a wee bit now.)

What Shall We Tell The Children?

There’s another piece I come back to again and again—a really radical address by Nicholas Humphrey called “What Shall We Tell the Children?”, first delivered as the Oxford Amnesty Lecture in 1997. In it, Humphrey discusses the idea of children’s intellectual rights in a way both provocative and compelling. His thesis centers on the teaching of beliefs:

I want to propose a general test for deciding when and whether the teaching of a belief system to children is morally defensible. As follows. If it is ever the case that teaching this system to children will mean that later in life they come to hold beliefs that, were they in fact to have had access to alternatives, they would most likely not have chosen for themselves, then it is morally wrong of whoever presumes to impose this system. No one has the right to choose badly for anyone else.

It becomes clear, in the fullness of the piece, that Humphrey is referring not just to teaching about a belief system, but indoctrinating a child into it. So how do we determine whether they would have chosen a belief/value/action for themselves? Sometimes it’s easy to know, and sometimes it’s difficult. So when in doubt, don’t impose a belief.

Here’s a dry run—some beliefs, values, and actions I could impose on my children:

Committing murder-suicide with an explosive vest
Being circumcised
Disliking a given racial/ethnic/religious/political group especially much
Liking a given racial/ethnic/religious/political group especially much
The importance of avoiding prejudice
The importance of self-respect
The value of honesty
The value of thinking for one’s self
Believing/disbelieving a given worldview

For each of these, picture your child at age 30, looking back on childhood. If you can easily picture the child saying, “If I had the freedom and ability to make my own choice at that age, I wouldn’t have chosen x,” you’ve probably identified a value that should not be imposed.

Start easy:

“If I had the freedom and ability to make my own choice, I wouldn’t have chosen to commit murder-suicide with an explosive vest.” My confidence is pretty high on this one. For this reason (and others, I suppose), I don’t send my children into governors’ compounds with explosive vests.

“If I had the freedom and ability to make my own choice at that age, I wouldn’t have chosen to be circumcised.” Youch. The number of uncircumcised adults who choose the procedure (somewhere around 1 percent, if I remember correctly) speaks for itself on this one.

Liking or disliking Swedes, Republicans, accountants? I can certainly see my child’s likes and dislikes differing from mine, so I take care to avoid inculcating. But it’s hard to imagine someone actively resenting the fact that their parents taught them not to pre-judge others (“When shall I escape from this damnable tendency toward tolerance?”).

Then it gets even easier. Picture them saying, “Damn them for teaching me self-respect!” or “Curse the day they forced me to think for myself!” I teach my kids self-respect, independent thought, honesty, and a whole raft of values they are almost certain to appreciate rather than bemoan as adults.

Ah, but now we’ve arrived, have we not. How does the inculcation of a given worldview—any given worldview—stand up to this test?

Answer: It’s all too easy to picture an adult wishing that a single worldview had not been forced on him or her as a child. I wish I hadn’t been forced to consider myself a Catholic. I wish I hadn’t been forced to consider myself an atheist.

I’m proposing an even higher standard than Humphrey’s “most likely.” With some probable exceptions, a reasonable doubt is enough for me to refrain from imposing a belief or value on my child.

Humphrey suggests that the protection of our children’s lifelong intellectual rights demands that we not indoctrinate them to any given worldview—that we allow them to experiment with belief, try on different hats, and weigh different influences until they themselves can make an informed choice. And I agree.

The complete text of Humphrey’s Oxford Amnesty Lecture

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.