The wisdom of children

I regularly read stuff written by home educating parents of young children in which they talk of 'trusting my child's instincts' or 'knowing that she knows best', or similar nonsense. It is pretty plain to me that those saying this sort of thing are working from a fixed religious or ideological perspective, rather than basing their belief system pragmatically upon observation of the real world.

In some cultures, children are held to be the repositories of the collective wisdom of the tribe or nation; they are somehow assumed to have access to the collective unconsciousness or something of that sort. Elders might thus believe that a very young child will be able to guide them in a way that an older person may not. We saw this sort of mentality with the choice of the present Dalai Lama in the 1930s. This notion has not been popular in the industrialised west, at least not generally. The reason why few people today subscribe to such ideas is not hard to find. If my boiler packs up, I would not ask my eight year old daughter what is to be done about it. She would know little about the matter and it would not be fair to thrust responsibility for the business onto her. The same would apply if I were considering re-mortgaging my home; she would be the last person I would ask. The reason for this attitude is that children do not know as much as adults. they are less apt to view the world rationally and have little experience of solving practical, real life problems. For the same reason, an eight year old child would not be in a good position to decide upon the course of either her own or anybody else's education, nor the best course of her own or anybody else's future life. These things are beyond her experience and it would be unfair to pass this responsibility to her. Just as with the case of the new boiler or the re-mortgaging of the house, she would not have enough information or insight to make a sensible and informed decision upon this question.

There are nevertheless, parents to whom this seems a good idea. They claim that their child 'knows best' what she should be learning and they wish to trust their child's 'instincts'. As I said above, this touching faith in the ability of small child to make a rational and far-sighted choice about matters affecting her whole future life cannot possibly be founded upon observation of the thought processes of real children. Nobody in their senses would rely upon a child of six deciding what was wise and good , either for herself or others. These parents are usually following the advice that others have doled out to them. The people handing out this advice are seldom psychologists or researchers in the developmental processes of children. Rather they are parents themselves who have acquired their insight into the nature of childhood not by the patient collecting and collation of masses of data, but by a sudden, blinding insight. This is not science, but mysticism.

I have nothing against mysticism, but it is as well to be aware that this is what we are dealing here. The way that a conventional view about the way that the world works, including how children's minds work and how they are best able to learn, is the result of thousands upon thousands of pieces of observation and research. These individual pieces of data find their way into peer reviewed journals and books and are examined there by others, who then offer their criticism. In this way, a broad consensus is gradually built up. This is not of course an infallible process! Scientists make mistakes as well and sometimes a false theory will flourish for decades before it is demolished. However, when somebody comes along and tells scientists that they are completely wrong about something or other, whether it is Plate Tectonics, the necessity of vitamins or the uselessness of directing a child's education externally; the onus is upon those claiming that science has got it wrong to provide their evidence and let others see what they have.