Smart Parenting for Busy & Imperfect People

Are Children Biological Puppets?

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Newly settled into a bustling neighborhood on Wall Street, my husband and I took the subway uptown for a stroll through Central Park.  I was ten weeks pregnant and thrilled to be out walking instead of cooped up in the apartment with pregnancy nausea.  We were taking in a rather bleak scene of the East Side’s reservoir when, suddenly, I started to cry.  I felt neither sadness nor joy, but nonetheless tears streamed down my cheeks and peeked out of the bottom of my sunglasses.

My crying was a not result of my will dictating an intentional action, but rather a chemical response occurring in my brain caused by pregnancy hormones.  How much control did I have at that moment to will or prevent myself from crying?  It seemed as though I had none, as there was no emotion or thought that caused my tears.  I cried against my will.

I try to keep this puzzling experience in mind while I parent for, at times, I am quite perplexed (and admittedly annoyed) by some of my children’s unexpected and uncontrollable behaviors (think tantrums, drawing murals on the walls, biting and hitting, etc…).  The moments when I witness a behavior that seems unfitting of my child’s character and stage of development beg me to question whether or not my child freely wills a particular action or if some powerful biological force has initiated the behavior instead.   Are babies and young children free to choose their actions and why does it matter?

Do Babies & Young Children Have Free Will?

Leading philosophers, neuroscientists and psychologists drastically disagree as to whether or not adult humans are free to choose to behave in one manner or another, let alone children.  The fad theory of the times is that humans are just “biological puppets”.  But, rather than expounding a particular philosophical argument for compatibilism, determinism, libertarianism or any other “-ism” related to the problem of free will, let’s assume for comparison sake that adults have free will- or agency.

Agency is the ability to act rationally out of one’s own volition, without coercion.

In questioning whether or not children have free will, we assume that adults do possess some form of agency and we draw attention to the fact that there is something different about children that causes us to question whether or not they also can act intentionally, just like adults.  Therefore, we must be open to the possibility that either children: (a) do have free will (b) they do not or (c) that they possess a quasi-free will.

Why the Question of Free Will Matters

I know what you’re thinking.  Unless you’re a philosopher, why should this question matter? The answer is quite simple—beliefs influence behaviors.  Parents and educators possess certain beliefs about children and these beliefs influence their caregiving behaviors.

If you believe a child cannot help but throw a tantrum when they are tired and hungry (i.e. they are not free to act in any other way but how their biological systems dictate), you will respond differently to the tantrum than if you believe that a child is behaving poorly because they are choosing to be downright rotten. 

The answer as to whether or not children have free will, and can therefore be held accountable (i.e. morally responsible) for their actions, is then entirely relevant to your day to day life as you care for children.

“Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.” -Ghandi

What should we then believe about a child’s ability to act intentionally?  The answer to the question is: (c) children possess a “quasi-free will.”  Or, more simply put- “yes” and “no” and everything in between.

Quasi-Free Will?  Please Explain!

Before you cast this question off, let me explain.  A child, much like an adult, has free will if they can think rationally by considering the possible outcomes of their choices and freely act based upon their contemplation.  Unlike adults, most children do not experience a steady stream of rational consciousness, which makes it impossible for children to consistently be aware and, therefore responsible, for their behavior.

This theory is exposed by Dr. Alison Gopnik, UC Berkeley. To view her TED Talk on the topic, click here.

A child’s consciousness is often bombarded by a form of uber-consciousness that allows them to take in much more data than they can process at once.  Their inhibitory neurons have not developed fully and this makes their experiences much more vivid and intense than an adults.  Hunger, anger, fear, and jubilation are felt in extreme forms and often cause behaviors that appear to be “out of control”.  Until a child’s inhibitory neurons can filter this abundance of data, he cannot fully make sense of the information and act rationally.

To illustrate this point, let us imagine a five year-old child who wants a piece of candy.  Her father said that she cannot have candy.  The child wants candy.  She helps herself to candy secretly and eats it in her room out of view.  When her father catches her, she quickly puts the candy behind her back as her face casts a shadow of shame.  We know the child possess the ability to consider the effects of her actions because she sneaks the candy and eats it in secret and displays shame.   This child displays rational judgment and she could freely act based upon her understanding of the consequences of her behavior.  She has free will.

Now imagine the same child when she was age three.  Her father tells her she cannot have candy.  She sneaks the candy when her father is not looking, but takes no trouble of hightailing it to her room to consume it.  Instead, she sits on the kitchen floor and enjoys the candy, openly and freely.  She clearly understood that she couldn’t take the candy and avoided doing so in front of her father, but once she considered the problem of taking the candy, eating it didn’t seem to be an issue.  This child is rational and understands that she was not supposed to take candy, but was not able to stop herself from eating it despite this understanding.  She is still developing and does not yet possess complete free will.

Finally, imagine the child as a crawling eight-month-old baby.  She sees candy and her father says “no”.  She screams and lunges for the candy. She continues to tantrum and breaks free from her father’s arms and takes and eats the candy.  She has no understanding of the consequences of her actions.  Her behavior is completely guided by her desires and unrestrained by reason.  She does not have free will.

The Ebb and Flow of the Conscious Tide

Free will is an ability that can exist under very particular circumstances.  Recall that rationality and ability to act upon it must both be present.  Unfortunately for children, the process of their development and the constraints placed upon them by their immature neurological, biological and psychological systems muddles their ability to freely act much of the time.  But this does not disqualify them completely from being held accountable for their behavior or to be thought of as individuals without agency.

Free will is not a constant stream, like in adults.  Rather in children, it is more like the ebb and flow of an ocean’s tide.  It rolls out and rolls in, sometimes without warning, but most often it is predictable and responds to the obvious forces that act upon it—hunger, fatigue, the bowels and a slew of emotions whether elated or sad.

The ability to discern whether or not a child is rationally choosing a behavior will become easier the older the child grows.  It is safe to assume that regardless of the advice in fad parenting books, that babies do not have free will.  That sweet smile that pulls the corners of a newborn baby’s mouth upward as though it is being tugged at by a knitting needle is a response to her gastrointestinal system- much to the despair of mom and dad.  Baby is also not being manipulative in her waking in the middle of the night and parents need not fear that they are spoiling her by answering her cries for comfort.

But, of course, baby will grow.  Cue the epic music and play the scene in slow motion– a cup of juice goes flying and a shriek, like that of a solider having his leg sawed off on a battlefield, bellows from the cherubic mouth of your two year old as he lurches forward, flops on the ground and heaves with monstrous sobs all because he wanted milk instead of juice.  Your first reaction is to whisper “what the #!@*” instead of (thankfully) saying it too loud.  (No harm, no foul due to the flood of cortisol raging in your brain you probably were not thinking rationally anyway and so you, therefore, did not have free will).

Now, did the child have free will?  No, probably not.  But when he calmly stares you in the eyes as he pours the juice on your new snakeskin Tory Burch flats while demanding “I w-a-n-t milk!”, you better believe he does and he is secretly hoping that you’ll realize it too and hold him accountable for his freely willed behavior.

If you can accept the statement that humans are not just biological puppets, it will not be as hard to acquiesce that children are also not being controlled by the strings of biology.  But, allowances must be made for the fact that the responsibility of free will is not, and cannot, be granted to a child until his biological systems have developed enough for him to withstand the burden of its weight.  In the meantime, relax and enjoy the show while Mother Nature pulls the strings like an accomplished master puppeteer.  It won’t be long before your child casts a glance upstage, realizes his plight and then overtakes her.

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