Choices, Troubles, and Destiny

By Clin Lai, Yale-NUS College ’17 – See bio

I find myself troubled recently, caught between the decision to forgive children for the ‘little’ wrongs that they make or to teach them to grow up.

We were taught since young that hurting another person is capital letters BAD. This is a good thing to learn. It is also something that we adults apparently seem to have trouble with despite the years of experience that we claim to have over children. When an adult hurts another adult, the best case scenario is that they get hurt right back in equal measure. That’s usually termed as karma-is-a-female-canine. The worst case scenario? They have a lawsuit on their hands that would take at least the next decade or so to resolve.

Children being children – unknown if due to humans’ natural instincts, genetics, nurture or whatever the case – have even more trouble controlling themselves when it comes to hurting others. Ultimately, humans are more or less self-serving creatures. Now, I hear the protest going on here. Especially from those who would prefer to think otherwise in the humanistic camp. They do have a point. Humans are not all selfish and self-serving. Humans have something called empathy and sympathy. Due to all those mirror neurons, occasionally we can actually be humane creatures that selflessly sacrifice ourselves for others. The fact that I can probably count on one hand the number of people who made headlines with their selflessness versus the numerous criminals that did with their cruelty, stupidity, and selfishness will not be brought up here.

Nuh-uh. Of course not.

But this really isn’t my point. The point is that whatever arguments there may be, I see humans as beings that consider themselves at the centre of our own universe (which brings up a rather strange image of everyone walking around with planets orbiting around them). It’s not their fault. It’s not our fault. It just is. We are all the heroes and heroines of our own story. When we look at a group of photographs, the first face we look for is our own face, followed by others closest to us.

I digress, however.

Back to my main point. Should we ‘let children be children’ and be lenient on them when they intentionally (focus on the word intentionally here) do things that are wrong? Should we allow them the freedom of hurting others on the premise that since they are young, they are allowed to make mistakes with impunity?

What are the consequences then, of ‘letting children be children’ to such an extent that they grow up with the mentality that all sorts behaviours can be excused due to age?

Before people start getting off their high horses and ranting about how children should certainly be forgiven because they are, after all, so young that they just don’t know better and can’t help themselves, let me give an example. If another kid accidentally collapses their block tower, of course they are going to be upset. Some kids may even impulsively fling one of the collapsed blocks (let’s call this kid, Kid A) at the other kid that accidentally collapsed their tower (this kid will be Kid B) because they can’t control themselves.

But herein lies the crux of the problem – what ought to be the response from the adults around?

The current well-rehearsed answer from the field of Early Childhood is that adults should first ignore Kid A, and ascertain that Kid B is fine. After that, inform Kid A that throwing blocks is unacceptable behaviour in the classroom (or anywhere, really) as Kid B may have been or was indeed hurt by it. The teacher might then send Kid A to the ‘time-out’ corner, and after a few minutes, get Kid A and B together again when emotions have somewhat tamed. Following that would be tearful apologies, from both Kid A for throwing the blocks and Kid B for being accident-prone. Hopefully, the situation would then be resolved. If not, parents may start making a fuss. Perhaps about how Kid B has this light pinkish spot on his arm, no doubt a result of what is now dubbed as The Flying BlockTM incident. The teacher might then mention that it actually landed on Kid B’s legs, not arm. Or perhaps the parents of Kid A may then mention adamantly about how Kid A must feel terribly hurt from the teacher’s admonishments.

I have a problem with that scenario.

When do we stop interfering in children’s fights and let them learn that adults are not always around to deal with fights for them?

When do we stop lying to the children that a simple ‘sorry’ will make things all better and let them start to grow up by dealing with the consequences themselves? When do we stop mollycoddling them and make them realise that the real world isn’t all clear cut? That hurting others is actually a serious thing? Not something funny. Not something to be mocked. That the victims could just as easily be them?

Everyone has a different answer. Again, I will state the answer that the majority seem to agree to. That is to let kids be kids because sooner or later they will learn. Forgive that child for throwing food on the floor when he doesn’t like it, or that other child for slapping another girl when she doesn’t want to be her friend. Forgive, reprimand reasonably, and hope for the best.

But the thing is, I am not satisfied with that vague half-hearted answer. I honestly want to know the exact age or range of age that we, as humans, develop the necessary cognitive abilities to handle the above stated questions. Is it at seven, when they first enter primary school? What about twelve, when they leave? What exactly is the use of a ‘fun’ as opposed to ‘serious’ childhood? What sort of ‘fun’ childhood do they really need? Do they really need it or are adults merely trying to live vicariously through their children? I want to know if there are any differences between a child that had made a mistake and wasn’t forgiven immediately, learned immediately what the consequences of that mistake were, how to avoid it in the future, and act accordingly, versus a child that had made a mistake, was forgiven for it immediately and told the ways to act in the future but chose not do so.

I want to know all this and more. Because I believe it is important for us as a society to know exactly when we can stop forgiving people – whether adults, teenagers, or children – who hurt other people. Because certain behaviours are not just a stage in life. Eventually, they may become habits so deeply ingrained that they become impossible to change.

Because people have choices. And that Kid A? That kid could have chosen not to throw that block.

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