treating children like rational creatures

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I was reading a philosophy book the other day, and I came across this interesting passage by John Locke:

Remove hope and fear, and there is an end of all discipline. I grant that good and evil, reward and punishment, are the only motives to a rational creature; these are the spur and reigns whereby all mankind are set on work and guided, and therefore they are to be made use of to children too. For I advice their parents and governors always to carry this in thier minds, that children are to be treated as rational creatures.

As I read the first two sentences of that passage, my mind was filled with thoughts of other things I had read about discipline.

I thought of how much I dislike the idea of “spare the rod and spoil the child.” I’m not in favor of physical violence at all.

I thought, too, of Alfie Kohn’s book Punished by Rewards, which makes the point that rewards are just as putative as threats of punishment, for they are good things offered for the point of being able to threaten not to grant them.

Finally, I thought of all the conversations I’ve seen on facebook  and in parenting books where people write as though punishing and rewarding children is a way of training children, as we would train animals.

Then I read the last sentence of the passage and I laughed. Locke offers punishments and rewards as a way of treating children, not like animals to be trained, but like rational human beings.

Rational human beings have to make choices with options that have consequences. Rational human beings attempt to choose the most pleasurable, least painful of those consequences.

There are of course a million arguments possible against this. First that comes to my mind is the argument that children are not always capable of following through with what they desire to do, so that even if a child would like to do what brings the reward he might be unable to earn it. Our expectations for children may be seriously out of line. A child may, rationally, learn to avoid punishment and seek rewards without obtaining the wisdom and skills necessary for life beyond home. Seting up rewards and punishments may give a bad example of the use of power over another person. There are a million possible reasons to avoid the rewards and punishment scheme, but I think its interesting to view it not through the attachment-parenting lens or modern parenting philosophy lens but through the lens of an eighteenth century philosopher.

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