This article was originally published in spanish in this website. Ir can be found here.

For Ale, with illusion

It is curious to analyze how legal systems regulate the rights of children.  They recognize the right to integrity, to dignity, to liberty of consciousness, to education, to free development of personality, to identity, among others.  All of these rights are theoretical and legal constructs that, despite being important, fail to focus clearly and directly in elements that, according to psychoanalysis and psychology, children need to be happy, such as: self-awareness, developed creativity, self-esteem, free expression of ideas and feelings, experiences of freedom and understanding of limits.

A child can be born in a home in which he or she is required to follow orders (either implicit or explicit) and where his opinion regarding important matters will be requested only rarely. In this environment, where children are not stimulated to understand their emotions or express what they feel, they must repress doubt, fear and anger because they do not have the conditions to manage them otherwise. Few children are able to express and elaborate what they feel.  An outburst of anger is interpreted as an expression of misbehavior and mischievousness and not as what it probably is: the necessity to express an internal problem such as fear, jealousy or the need for attention among others. What do adults do? They either punish or ignore and, thus, do not give their children the opportunity to discover what is really happening by allowing them express what they feel. Therefore, outbursts of anger will continue because their cause is unknown and subtle.

The same rule applies to the household matters, which are hidden from children or embellished to the point of denaturalization. We think children do not have the capacity to understand. We are also extremely afraid of harming them with our information. However, Jung and Dolto demonstrate, quite clearly, that we are wrong since the failure of parents to communicate is more acute than the failure of their children to understand. Hiding all events that generate preoccupation at home (and often directly concern the life of children) only generates anxiety and lack of self-esteem in a child that, despite not receiving information, is perfectly able to perceive that something is wrong. Regretfully, repressing doubts and uncertainty or fantasying explanations is not an appropriate answer because, if this happens, the child may end up thinking that the reason why information is being withheld is because he or she is the cause of the problem.

Each day, adults are decreasing the positive impact fairy tales have in children´s lives by reading other silly stories in which everything is nice and everyone is good. As Bettelheim demonstrates, when a child listens to one of his parents reading a fairy tale to him, he can unconsciously understand his own problems and is able to elaborate the ways in which he can confront and solve them. He can sense that emotions can be manage, that success is a consequence of effort, that it is normal to have weaknesses, that people can change, that we have ambivalent feeling towards people of our family, that creativity and sense of humor can help us overcame difficulties.

A child feels identified with the hero, who has weaknesses, and has troubles and temptations to overcome in order to succeed. He can understand that evil is bad, not because of the sanctions that are imposed to villains but because they always lose. Likewise, the stories are about universal and significant topics such as: anger, rivalry, lost, loneliness, pleasure, love, which fascinate children. They unconsciously accomplish to work on their inner world just by listening to the original versions of this type of art. Why? Because fairy tales are not moral or rational explanations of adult’s reality, they are magic created to connect with the world of children. Moreover, tales are not explicit. They don’t talk about adults but maybe about giants, they don´t talk about home but about a place “far, far away”. By doing so, fairy tales refer to the children inner world, fantasies and unconscious without the risk of scaring them. At the same time, they allow children to return to reality because the hero always returns to his common life after finishing his adventure. Therefore, they help connecting children’s outside world with their inner world. As well, they open an unusual opportunity to communicate with children by exchanging opinions about the stories, which could not happen if the topics were explicit.

Regretfully, both in families and schools, we are failing to sufficiently exposed children to these stories.

This daily failure to engage in meaningful understanding and dialogue with children (by understanding, by gestures, by giving information or by fairy tales) and the subsequent repression and dissociation of the child with his or her emotions is the beginning of the incapacity people have to know or think about themselves. Everything becomes just actions. Probably, nothing can harm a human being more than this dissociation although legal systems do nothing in this respect.

Homework is done according to rules [1] and games take place following the indications of and at the time established by adults. Everything must be organized in an order that is wished and designed only by adults. The child does not own any space and his or her time is, strictly speaking, the time of adults.

The capacity children have to make people laugh by imitating the rest or performing other jokes is the money with which they purchase the approval of the group. Those who are introverted must stop being so as an attempt to avoid exclusion. It is often considered that an introverted baby has a problem or is unwell while, in reality, as Jerome Kagan attests, they only have a different genetic configuration than an extroverted baby. Of course, from the point of view of legal systems no right is affected when an introverted child must change his or her personality in order to preserve the love of the group.

Demonstrations of love and kindness depend on the extent with which a child does whatever his parents, either consciously or unconsciously, expect him to do. This has extremely harmful consequences in a child’s autonomy and self-esteem. Unconditional love, that is, demonstrating kindness and acceptance to a child regardless of his or her conduct, allows children to develop their personalities without the risk of becoming unloved during the process.  Furthermore, the foundations for their self-esteem and self- security depend, to a great extent, on whether or not they interiorize that they must not earn the love of their parents but that they deserve it only because they exist.

A child may go to a school where his right to education is fulfilled with the acquisition of knowledge and a few skills. Children are not taught to comprehend and control their emotions or to identify and accept their weaknesses, which increase the disconnection initiated at home. All children are supposed to be perfect and practice sports so they can win and not in order to enjoy. Children study to obtain good grades and good grades are used to maintain approval by one´s family and avoid being bullied by partners. This is the motivation they have to learn about the sea (through books), history (through books), genes (through books), biology (through books) and astronomy (through books). They might spend hours sitting at their desks and might only be able to satisfy the natural necessity of movement at recess time during which they may express negatively and violently what they cannot articulate at home. Great way to guarantee their freedom of expression and the free development of their personality!

A school is often a place in which all courses are mandatory and where arts disappeared the day children learn not to draw out of the lines. Art is one of the most productive ways in which children express their inner world. Despite that, only rarely a professor pays serious attention to children’s artistic creations, except, of course, when a child draws black skeletons and blood (that has a meaning even in adult’s world!).

The first serious decision an adolescent takes, during his life, is to decide his or her profession, like those birds forced to fly for hundreds of meters to reach the sea only two weeks after they were born. Therefore, invariably, many of them fail.  In order to be free it is necessary to have significant experiences of freedom, to manage the feelings of incertitude and repentance, of satisfaction and responsibility implicit in all decision-making. Nobody is born free and, in the present situation, nobody teaches how to be free either.

A school is a place in which learning to read can be exclusively equated to the acquisition of a technique. But, why do we really read for? Reading is a path to discover significance and learn and understand the world, we read because we feel attracted to the content of books and stories not because we feel delighted with the use of a technique. However, it is taught just as a technique to be learned. This is why each day the texts used to teach children to read have fewer numbers of words, more pictures, and stories that awake no interest and have no relevance for children. They learn to read because is mandatory but, innerly, they conclude: reading is stupid. This is a shame, if we take into consideration the importance of books and stories in our mental and spiritual development.

Thus, our children are learning for grades, to maintain love, to avoid being excluded, and because is mandatory. This is how we motivate children to enter our adults’ world.

Discipline is used to hide the insecurity of teachers and may not have any relationship with supposed misbehavior. Speaking in class may keep a student from going to recess, bothering a mate may have him sent to a corner, breaking a window may cause his suspension. It is easy to educate thus; teaching that right and wrong depends on the arbitrary will of someone with authority. It is a good way to guarantee democracy!

This is an education designed to take the magic of childhood from children turning them, progressively, into small adults who may end up being saddened, stressed, fearful, submissive, hyperactive, violent or disoriented.

The connection of children with nature is, as Richard Louv states, weaker every day despite the innumerable benefits it offers for the development of their creativity and personality [3].  In this respect, some studies even show that the mere contact with nature helps to avoid attention deficit and stress disorders [4].  Maybe, what is now treated with medication could be solved within the deep mystery of a small forest.  However, children, each day more inserted in lifeless, isolated and fictitious worlds, are separated from nature´s mysteries, vitality and connection. Which legal right was damaged when we stop building tree houses?  Which law establishes that having contact with nature is to be a legal protected good?

All of these are just some examples of how difficult it is to be a child in a world of adults, in an “adultizing” world. Books [5] by Winnicott, Jung, May, Bettelheim, Miller, Dolto, Wild, Nussbaum, Louv, among others, explore and deal with more circumstances which demonstrate how terrible is our treating of children. And by saying this I do no refer, exclusively, to physical violence but also to the silent killing of everything which resides in the essence of being a child.

Legally, are we affecting children’s freedom of consciousness? No. And their freedom of expression? No. In fact, it is not even clear that they possess these rights. We probably think, erroneously, that their right of free expression may materialize through comments made by children and adolescents about elections or government. However this demonstrates, merely, our incapacity to understand their world and their necessities. We attribute to them our own fear to think about our inner world and assume, therefore, that freedom of expression will always be focused in the outside world.  For children, however, expressing and discovering their feelings and their problems is essential for happiness and freedom in the future.

Are their rights to education and the free development of personality being affected?  According to our legal system they are not.  And if we were to demonstrate otherwise we would be required to write a long legal report about it.  Meanwhile, it is enough to give children some tools with which to earn money later in life and hire a psychologist to keep them from killing each other in campus.

Is their right to identity being affected?  According to our legal system it is not.  Identity, in the world of adults, is obtained with a National Identity Document and is used in government paperwork. Unluckily, the right of a child to form an identity which will allow him or her to face the world happily cannot be obtained through a National Identity Document or through the formal recognition of fatherhood.  Identity is a consequence of the experiences of freedom, of the sensation of feeling accepted and of being able to engage in creative thinking and, therefore, not a consequence of a formal recognition by the government.

Despite the great difference between children and adults the rights that have been mentioned apply identically to both. They were created hundreds of years ago as political reivindications at a time where children were considered, literally, as small adults without a distinct identity. Back then, nothing was known about the needs of children. It is difficult to recall whether our founding fathers actually strove to understand the true needs of their youngest children.

Bullying, suicide, racism, gangs, drug addiction, depression, stress, senselessness and rebellion have part of their origin in this kind of treatment we give to children.

If it is clear what children need in order to be happy, why recognize a set of rights which is incomplete and imprecise and which requires extensive analysis before something actually important can be found?  Why not recognize a clear set of rights which recognizes the central aspects of a children’s life: the right to self-awareness, the right to express themselves, the right to the development of creativity, the right to unconditional love, the right to self-esteem, and to relate with nature? There are many actions which could be undertaken to guarantee these clear, authentic and useful rights. Actions such as informing families about the ways in which their acts affect children, introducing changes in public education, or creating “magical worlds” in parks, with tree houses and tunnels that could be employed in order to assure that creativity becomes real.

Evidently, further research is needed to acknowledge how and to what extent the legal system could, through interdisciplinary lens, help transforming this situation.

Despite that, we can ask ourselves in advanced: Are we close to achieve change? Not really. The barriers of the soul are harder to climb that those of bureaucrats. Maybe that is why we seek shelter in the misconception that everything can be solved with money, laws, and structural reform. “Do not look inside, solution are out”, we unconsciously shout. Maybe, that is also the reason why all of our theories about human rights are tremendously abstract. We speak with confusion about dignity and freedom of conscience; we quote philosophers and perplex law students in order to avoid undertaking the essential, inwardly, point of view. We hide from self-analysis, which for some elusive reason is as painful as it is positive, and shield ourselves inside the lighthouse of abstractness, from which we shine light to illuminate the exterior in search of solutions, while the answers hide in the obscure deep, where the light does not reach.

Regarding childhood I believe, in accordance to Miller and Dolto, that adults have an intense mix of fear and envy because we recognize in children things that we can no longer be. Thus, it becomes dangerous to think about the needs of a child or to fulfill them because that might bring back to memory the pain of the events that went wrong in our own infancy. To this, one must add the desire of vengeance and the unfair projection of our own problems upon those who are unable to defend themselves. In this context, it is not a surprise that in our legal system, according to the Civil Code, children are “absolutely incapable”. This is a harsh legal fiction which speaks about an unconscious but not less harsh approach to childhood.

Never before in history have there been so many suicidal children, so much violence in schools, so many children on psychiatric medication, so much childhood stress, so much addictive behavior towards technology and so much incertitude among parents. These problems have probably taken us by surprise and although there is no one to blame many have the possibility and the responsibility to become part of the solution. In this respect, the legal system should, along with psychoanalysis and psychology, help to see more clearly what children actually need.  Maybe, in this path, they will help us to meet again “the spirit of children, the bond of memory” [6].

__________________________

[1] Several studies demonstrate, for example, that parents which help their children to do their homework too often may cause them to learn less and to not develop their autonomy.  However, it is also noted that positive consequences appear if parents intervene only when the child explicitly requests so.  For more information see: Homework Help Hurts Learning: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/brain-trust/201202/homework-help-hurts-learning.

[2] Only few people with exceptional courage and noteworthy talent or passion lead lives linked to the arts after graduating from High School.

[3] According to Stephen Kellert: “Play in nature, particularly during the critical period of middle childhood, appears to be an especially important time for developing the capacities for creativity, problem-solving, and emotional and intellectual development”. See: MILKMAN, Janet. Leave no children inside. http://www.erthnxt.org/newsroom/2009/Leave%20no%20child%20inside.pdf.

[4] See the studies quoted by Richard Louv at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VrDIbt80Ve8.

[5] See, among others: BETTELHEIM, Bruno. Psicoanálisis de los cuentos de hadas. Barcelona: Crítica, 1999; DOLTO, Françoise. La educación en el núcleo familiar. Barcelona: Paidós, 1999; MILLER, Alice. Por tu propio bien. Barcelona: Tusquets, 1985; NUSSBAUM, Martha. Sin fines de lucro. Madrid: Katz, 2010; WILD, Rebeca. Límites, libertad, amor y respeto. Barcelona: Herder, 2006; WINNICOTT, Donald. Realidad y juego. Barcelona: Gedisa, 2008.

[6] Kevin Arnold. The Wonder Years. Chapter 22. See final part at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=He1Ol6FTzHE&feature=related

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