Ideally, people have a child with the hope that their offspring will grow up to be healthy and happy; and perhaps achieve things they did not. We want our children to trust and believe in us, yet we frequently lie to them. We want them to learn to communicate and gain verbal skills, but we speak to them in gibberish. We want them to acquire the mannerisms of social creatures, yet we demonstrate inappropriate behaviour.
The human infant is remarkable in its capacity to learn. The ability to gain from experience declines throughout life, and few parents fully consider the fact that their child is far superior to them in that respect. The seemingly mindless, repetitive tasks that a baby amuses itself with often strike us as pointless; but they are actually honing their motor skills, and determining cause and effect: learning how one action always leads to a given result. How much of this intent has a conscious element, and how much is innate is difficult to gauge, since we are unable to adequately communicate with the infant mind, and nobody retains much, if any, conscious memory of very early childhood.
Children develop at different rates, but in general we can consider them as “honest” creatures through their first three years of life; honest in that they are the true human animal, yet to completely realize abstracts such as deceit, vengeance, and distrust. Infants function in a purely self-serving manner, the innate social emotions are not activated in the early period of life. This is by necessity, for a helpless newborn must place its own needs foremost in order to survive. Ironically, because of this natural process, a baby’s behaviour is, by the ethical criteria set by society, the equivalent of pure “evil”.
Once out of the critical stage of infancy, almost all toddlers quickly develop social emotions (a small minority do not because of genetic errors). Partly due to the gregarious nature of humans, much of what a child learns is based on observation of other people, rather than just trial and error. All the necessary capabilities are genetically predetermined, but interaction in our complex social structure requires that a child learn how to be like everyone else.
You do not have to teach a baby how or when to laugh, for it is instinctive to communicate emotions; but society teaches people to hide their feelings. Despite constant research focused on finding a proto-language, it appears that none exists; so a child has to learn verbal skills from others. Children will naturally develop the ability to quantify by determining what is “enough”; but using numbers has to be taught.
Humans begin life driven by instincts, gaining information about their environment through the senses; touch and taste initially being the most important. Infants learn in a preprogrammed fashion, but because we are herd animals, they gradually begin to mimic the behaviour of others; which eventually becomes the overriding influence. In the beginning, the number of people who can have an effect upon a child is quite limited, however this obviously changes over time. Parental influence is most significant in the early years, and will set the basic patterns that will remain as points of reference throughout life.
Contrary to the views held by a few pseudo-psychologists, gender has significance from an early age. The different behaviour exhibited by each parent teaches a child how each sex fulfills its role in society. A child models itself after the same-sex parent, and looks to the other as a guide to the conduct of the opposite gender. It is commonly known that aberrant interaction between parents frequently results in children who grow up to perpetuate the problem. A child who witnesses abusive actions by the same-sex adult will usually abuse their future mate; a child who sees the same-sex adult being mistreated will eventually be drawn to partners who will abuse them.
People often communicate with newborns by making nonsensical noises. The infant responds to sounds on a basic level; the tone, and not the substance, is what matters. It does not take long before a child begins to identify words with their meaning; from names of items and actions, like ‘bottle’ or ‘bath’, to abstracts such as ‘no’. Soon after, they begin to mimic words in order to make their needs known; but since their verbal skills are still maturing, these attempts are simplified approximations of the sounds.
This is the point where parents often unwittingly retard the development of their offspring by adopting the child’s term. For example, a youngster may be unable to say the word ‘bottle’, and instead uses ‘ba-ba’. A parent may then refer to the object in that manner, saying things such as “do you want your ba-ba?” Such behaviour produces no positive results; you are not making yourself more easily understood, for the child knows the real word and is still working on mastering its pronunciation. You are only delaying the learning process because you will have given the child the impression that ‘ba-ba’ is an acceptable alternative.
Children can learn to understand an adult vocabulary at a very young age. Acquiring the ability to pronounce all of the words can take years; but comprehension occurs early. Speaking to a child as you would an adult conveys an element of respect, and improves their language skills. Children without siblings consistently score higher in verbal maturity tests simply because of their exposure to adults; there is less of the negative influence from other youngsters, where they would tend to adopt seemingly satisfactory linguistic variants.
Many parents establish a pattern of lying to their children. This can take many forms, but the most curious is the practice of creating a belief in imaginary entities. The Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny, and Santa Claus are examples of mythical figures people often portray as real to children, without explaining the concept of “make-believe”. Some adults enjoy the charade, and feel that it is a harmless custom; but is it possible that there is an effect?
Humans begin life as innocent trusting creatures, this makes sense from a biological perspective, for children must rely on the wisdom of older individuals to ensure their well being. Children learn to distrust people through experience, usually due to betrayal by peers. This distrust does not necessarily apply to parents, or even adults; young and old are seen as quite different entities. Sometimes the first indication that older people are dishonest occurs when another “smarter” child reveals that the magical beings, their parents had told them existed, are actually unreal. To adults, living in a world of deceit, learning that one has been mislead is not particularly significant; but to a child, finding out that your parents lie to you is a revelation, for now other truths become suspect.
Some people believe that Santa Claus teaches a moral lesson; rewarding children for “good” behaviour. But is this not a lesson learned through the simple conditioning used daily by parents; and is materialism definitive of reward? The Western image of Santa Claus is actually a corporate creation of Coca-Cola®, their character dutifully dressed in product colours. One would be hard pressed to find ethical elements to the other stories told to youngsters; where magic rabbits hide eggs, teeth can be exchanged with fairies for cash, and “bogeymen” attack kids who get out of bed at the improper time.
Is there a connection between growing up with a belief in imaginary figures, and a later belief in Abominable Snowmen, Loch Ness Monsters, and alien abductions? Do the omniscient and supernatural qualities of an immortal Santa Claus make it easier to later accept unusual religious substitutes? Do these people manifest new myths to maintain a link to childhood, rather than cope with the realities of adult life?
Many of the common lies people tell to children are simply for expediency; rather than taking the time to explain something the child does not understand, it is easier to mislead them. Youngsters absorb information, and everything they are told contributes to their mental image of reality. Contradictions that crop up later cause them to decide on believing one source or the other; or combine the information into a mixture of fact and falsehood. If your child has already learned to doubt your veracity, then he/she may choose to trust a different source, and possibly accept a fictional account as true.
It is not always necessary to provide children with complete explanations. If you are pressed for time, you can arrange to further discuss the matter at another time. This does not mean using the typical parental response of “later”, which actually means that you hope they will forget about it; but a guarantee that you will make the time. The child may no longer be interested in the topic when you revisit it, but you have established the fact that you are reliable, and genuinely care about their concerns. This will be of great significance later in life, when they need advice on what, to them, are critical issues of adolescence.
Questions about sexuality frequently provoke evasiveness and deceit from parents. Even though mating influences practically every aspect of human behaviour, many people are uncomfortable discussing it. When very young children inquire about sex, it is generally about a specific point, and it is not necessary to launch into a detailed explanation of all things sexual. It is best to take a simple step at a time, satiating their curiosity on a particular point; more questions will come later, eventually reaching the stage where you will have to fit all of the pieces together.
The actual mechanics of mating are not the most important aspect, for reproduction is innate, and every normal creature can manage it through experimentation. The social aspect of sexuality is preeminent; the rituals and ethics of society govern whether our behaviour is deemed “good” or “bad”. Failure to properly instruct a child in the intricacies of human sexuality may lead to their acceptance of inappropriate conduct as normal, when respected peers provide erroneous information. Some parents prefer to leave sex education to the public school system, but this is a poor source for essential social values. Political-correctness has made it almost impossible to be critical of even the most bizarre of sexual acts, and many schools studiously avoid applying ethics to sexuality regardless of potential psychological consequences. Public education is a good source of knowledge on the prevention of disease and pregnancy, but moral values are the parent’s responsibility. To preempt the school’s implication that anything is acceptable, these issues must be discussed in advance.
A great deal of what defines a human being is innate, and much of a child’s personality is due to genetics; however, what is learned through experience profoundly influences behaviour. Some empirical knowledge awakens an instinctive response, while other reactions are due to what is absorbed from watching others.
An infant playing with a cat may hurt the animal. This would be purely by accident; without intent nor remorse. If the cat lashes back, the child will simply become upset. At a later time, the toddler may inadvertently harm the cat, and when it strikes back, the child may then intentionally hit its pet. This is a natural response, where higher animals use intimidation as a defensive strategy. Later still, the youngster may begin to strike the cat whenever it fails to behave in the manner the child expects, trying to enforce the simple conditioning he/she has experienced in their own life; understanding that a pet cannot be reasoned with, yet will respond to force.
At this point you may feel compelled to admonish the child to be nicer to the cat. The next stage demonstrates the effect of human society; something beyond natural behaviour. By three or four years of age, a youngster is capable of planning to hurt the cat, while considering ways to avoid being caught. We have taught the child the abstract concepts of vengeance and deceit. Although it is fascinating to watch how toddlers develop foresight, often it first becomes noticeable in what we perceive as negative ways.
The influence of parents is crucial to a child’s growth, and that influence is dependent upon the amount of faith the youngster has in its parents. In rare instances, your best efforts will go unrewarded, usually due to a child’s predetermined personality. One in fifty will lack the capacity to feel emotions such as guilt, remorse, or pity (although they will learn to mimic them), and nothing can be done for these people; however, many go on to lead productive lives.
Overall, good parents produce good children, and bad parents create maladjusted ones. The personality of the child is a factor, but ways can be found to sublimate some undesirable traits. Just as disposition can negatively impact your attempts at doing your best for your offspring, it can also supersede the destructive behaviour of those who should not have produced children; occasionally a strong-willed child will determine that their goal is to be the antithesis of the type of people their parents are, which can yield very positive results.
You have an obligation to your offspring, to provide them with every opportunity to lead a happy and rewarding life. You have an obligation to society, to create a person who will not bring misery to others. You have an obligation to yourself, to prove to your own satisfaction that you can contribute to a better world, by creating someone who is an asset to humanity; consequently gaining personal fulfillment and self-esteem.
Regardless of how many things you feel you have failed at in your life, your redemption is in the legacy your child represents. To also fail at being a parent, for lack of commitment, can mean condemning your child to the same life of failures; and your legacy becomes misery.