the moral world of children

Phillip Larkin, the great English poet, once said, “Until I grew up I thought I hated everybody, but when I grew up I realized it was just children I didn’t like. Once you started meeting grown-ups life was much pleasanter. Children are very horrible, aren’t they. Selfish, noisy, cruel, vulgar little brutes.”

In reading anything by Larkin, you have to make allowances for a combative, hostile stance toward women, immigrants, animals, and children. This is a stance, and its main point is to communicate the narrator’s own flaws and vulnerability. He wasn’t a nice man, but he was a profound ironist. He didn’t exactly mean what he wrote.

Nevertheless, I think Larkin had a point in the passage quoted above–not about all kids, but about children who are raised the way his generation was in middle-class, provincial England ca. 1930. If you leave children alone to create their own social world and to interact freely with one another, they can indeed be selfish and cruel. In the society of Larkin’s youth, discipline was strict (sometimes even brutal), but adults didn’t interfere much in children’s social world. They punished kids for playing dangerously or for annoying or inconveniencing grown-ups, not for being mean to one another. In fact, adults’ strictness tended to drive children into a separate world in which the stronger kids dominated. Left completely to their own devices, children will make Lord of the Flies.

But of course you can interfere to make children kind and fair to one another. Or you can integrate kids into families and adult communities so that they don’t have a fully autonomous social world. There is a lot of variation in the degree to which children and adolescents are allowed to form autonomous youth cultures. I think less autonomy is generally better.

(This position has implications for the way we organize schools. In particular, it means that we should try to make schools smaller and connect them to adult institutions instead of isolating them behind big lawns or barred windows.)

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