"Parents Are The Bones On Which Children Cut Their Teeth"
In Germany, homeschooling has been banned due to concerns about children "adopting their parents' opinions"—this was among other reasons, but it is a major reason cited by the authorities. What, exactly, does this mean in practice? How far should the state go to protect children from adopting their parents' opinions? For example, would the German courts prevent the following parents from homeschooling because these children have obviously adopted their parent's opinions? Irish inspirational speaker Eric Lassard is nine years old. In the video below you can hear him describe how when he was two years old he began attending self-help seminars with his parents. He was so impressed by the results produced by the seminars on the adults who took them that he began emulating and studying them. In the process of doing so, he learned to read, write, socialize, and calculate, create a board game, and become a public speaker.
Would the German authorities have trouble with this young man and his family? Perhaps some would say Eric Lassard is being rushed into adulthood by pushy parents, that they should allow Eric to "be a child." But what if the child—such as Eric—wants to do these things? Why do we insist that children act like children all the time—isn't this infantilizing? Children are not just kids, they are also potential adults and we should respect and honor their dual nature rather than deny it. As John Holt wrote in Escape From Childhood: "But little children are not going to remain three years old, soft, cute, cuddly, dependent. They have a life ahead of them, in which they will be a great many persons. And we have no right, early in their lives, to treat them in a way that will diminish or injure any of those other persons they will become. The saying “kids are kids, not potential adults” cuts two ways. It can lead us out of one mistake and into another just as bad. For the child is a “kid” and a potential adult. Certainly, we have no right to treat him as if nothing but the present person would ever exist. If it is wrong—I agree that it is—to think of him only in terms of his future, it is just as wrong to think of him as if he had no future." Children like Eric Lassard are, in a strong sense, playing with a role they are attracted to. For instance, in the video you see Eric acting adult-like in some ways then moving back to child-like play with his pet guinea pigs. As Holt notes, children "will be a great many persons" in the course of their lives, and this is something politicians, educators, and parents need to remember. We tend to view the school process as A + B = C, which it is on paper and in theory; but the human process of learning is not nearly as straightforward in practice. If learning is a simple formula to manage for all students, why are the ongoing reforms of schooling necessary? Further, both schools and homes are actually comfortable with children who adopt their opinions, so it seems crazy that a parent's opinions are dangerous when a child adopts them but if a child adopts school's opinions then those opinions are proper and socially tolerable. However, this formulation misses a key element in the opinion-adoption problem: children often develop their own opinions over time. It is easy to praise and love a child who is emulating their elders in school or at home; but what happens when that child changes their mind and decides to try a different role, a different way of thinking? This, too, is an essential aspect of growing up, the moment when you decide for yourself what you want to be and do; there are no predetermined times or rituals that can make this happen for all children when school, or their parents, decide it ought to occur. Fortunately, for children like Eric, they have learned to make genuine choices about their personal goals from an early age and by the time they are adults they will probably be pretty good at making decisions about their lives. Another young man who emulated his parents' opinions and became famous for it is Jonathan Krohn. In March 2009, at the age of 13, he was asked to deliver a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, where he made a splash. He also wrote a book, Defining Conservatism, and the conservative politician and author, Bill Bennett, wrote the introduction to it. But here's another thing we know from history, literature, and parenting throughout the ages: Children don't always grow to be the people their parents or others expect them to become, no matter how strong their opinions, character, or interests may have been as children. The New York Times wrote on April 26, 2013, that Krohn:
. . . was courted by Fox News, mentored by William Bennett and anointed 'the future of conservatism.' A frequent cable-news guest and Tea Party speaker appearing in sweater vests or suits and ties, he was called Alex P. Keaton, Lil’ Limbaugh, the Little Mr. Conservative (in a headline with a 2009 article in these pages), Urkel, a Muppet and Doogie Howser, G.O.P. But Mr. Krohn, it turned out, was a work in progress, and by this spring his transformation seemed nearly total: from a buttoned-up kid to a shaggy young adult with facial scruff and untucked shirts; from a golfer to a lover of art films; from a home-schooled Christian living in Duluth, Ga., to a secular New York University freshman in the East Village. Most jarring of all, he renounced his earlier political beliefs. The turnabout made him something of a pariah among conservatives (Mr. Bennett now declines to discuss him) and ruptured his family. “I started reflecting on a lot of what I wrote, just thinking about what I had said and what I had done,” Mr. Krohn told Politico last summer. He said he came to believe that “it was naïve,” that he was “a 13-year-old kid saying stuff that he had heard for a long time.” He added that from now on “I want to be Jonathan Krohn, and I’m tired of being an ideology.”
Parents' opinions can definitely influence a child and, as these examples indicate, this influence can have incredibly positive intellectual, social, and other benefits for children. Of course, they can also cause heartbreak and disappointment in families, but these don't have to be permanent rifts; the Times article notes that Jonathon Krohn has recently reconciled with his family. Frankly, I doubt the German courts would say Lassard and Krohn are examples of bad parenting, but how can they deny they are not also examples of children adopting parent's opinions? If anything, these self-possessed young people are positive examples of competent children—and their futures are still being made. Krohn has dropped out of college to be a foreign correspondent ("I've always wanted to go to the Middle East. I've been studying Arabic since I was 9."); who knows what Eric Lassard will be doing when he is 18? I wouldn't be at all surprised if he has moved beyond presenting self-improvement seminars. The real fear that governments have of children adopting parents' beliefs is, probably, that they will internalize the antisocial or negative opinions that their parents have about the government or country and thus will never feel themselves to be part of society or, worse, act upon those opinions in harmful ways. Germany will have to figure this out in its own way; they don't want Americans telling them how to run their government and schools. I hope homeschoolers, religious schools and leaders, and alternative schoolers can band together to affect public opinion in Germany so families can live without fear of losing custody of their children if they hold an unpopular opinion and their children repeat it to a state employee. There are other ways of making children feel welcome and part of society besides forcing them all to attend school in an attempt to prevent them from adopting their parent's opinions. Indeed, as these examples show, parents' opinions can be incredibly powerful, useful, and positive assets for children to embrace, use, and think about; but as children grow up they can reach conclusions the parents don't share. As Peter Ustinov said, "Parents are the bones on which children cut their teeth." By deciding that children should not be allowed to adopt their parents' opinions governments, such as in Germany and Sweden, are trying to be sure that only professional, educated opinions are introduced to children in a systematic process; this infantilizes both children and their parents, and reduces public opinion to mere compliance with institutional opinion.