Thanks to the unremitting work of a small army of developmental psychologists and educationalists, our knowledge of children’s behaviour is now greater than ever. However, this knowledge has simultaneously ensured that children are now more puzzling than ever. This is the conclusion that Gerrit Breeuwsma, developmental psychologist at the University of Groningen, presents in his recently published book entitled Het vreemde kind (The Strange Child). On the basis of a kind of imposed anxiety about everything that can go wrong, we scrutinize our children ever more closely, so that we end up only increasing the alienation.
Breeuwsma explains why he has written the book. ‘In psychology, childhood is regarded as the period in which your personality is formed. But that confronts us with a problem in view of the fact that childhood is pre-eminently the period about which we have very little first-hand knowledge. Our oldest memories generally date from the time that we were four or five years old. Even from the subsequent years, we have only shards of memories at our disposal in a sea of oblivion. As a result, we are essentially strangers to ourselves.’ This is also the tragedy of our lives, Breeuwsma believes. ‘The first few years of our lives are a chain of first impressions and unique experiences – no other period in our lives can compete with it – but it is exactly this exciting time that disappears from our memory.’
This gap in our memories has led to scientists performing extensive studies on the child. One of the first to do so in a systematic way was Charles Darwin. ‘Darwin kept a baby diary on his elder son, whose behaviour he recorded in meticulous detail. This work was later continued in developmental psychology.’ Since then, there have been many major discoveries. But according to Breeuwsma – paradoxically enough – all that knowledge has led to the fact that the child has become even more alien. ‘Much self-evident behaviour suddenly turned out to be not at all self-evident. A whole world of meaning lurks behind relatively simple behaviour such as crying. The way in which parents ought to cope with their crying baby has repeatedly been a source of disagreement among educationalists. And to parents, it remains a source of worry.’
Due to the enhanced alienation of the child, his/her parents have become more afraid and uncertain, Breeuwsma observes. Manuals on upbringing try to help, but often only reinforce their uncertainty. ‘Such books frequently contradict one another. Knowledge about behaviour is difficult to translate into straightforward guidelines.’ Because parents have become more afraid, the children’s freedom of movement has also been greatly restricted. ‘Children nowadays are worldly-wise. They engage in discussions about all kinds of things. But their actual freedom of movement has declined. Where, thirty or forty years ago, children could go alone to the park with their scooters on a Wednesday afternoon without their parents knowing what they were doing, nowadays they must precisely announce their co-ordinates so that their parents know where they are. You can even equip children with a GPS system.’
Not only the physical but also the mental freedom of movement of children has declined. ‘Parents wish to be informed by the school not only about which mark their child received for mathematics but they also wish to know how he or she is coping emotionally. All aspects of children’s behaviour are followed. As a result, the illusion is created that you can control the behaviour of children. The ease with which it is said that we must get the most out of a child suggests that the potential of each child is already fixed. But that is not the case: the potential of the child arises in the development itself.’
The scrutiny of children by their parents, teachers and psychologists also plays a role in the great increase in child-related problems, Breeuwsma believes. ‘We are eager to furnish children with a label, such as ADHD for very active children, for example. It seems as if the problem has then been appropriately categorized, but actually we are stating that we do not really know how to deal with the child.’
Too much attention to the behaviour of children ultimately backfires because this only puts them under enormous pressure. ‘Many school-related problems result from the tendency to press children into the school mould. We ought to act in a more relaxed way, then we might have more success in keeping pupils in education.’ Breeuwsma advocates giving children more peace and space. ‘We ourselves would certainly not find it pleasant if people were on our backs the whole day long. We would experience it as an enormous intrusion into our privacy. But we tend to think this is normal with children. A hundred years ago, Ellen Key said: “Not leaving children in peace is the greatest crime in modern upbringing.” Since then the magnitude of the “crime” has only increased. It would be better to place more faith in the spontaneous developmental power of children.’
Gerrit Breeuwsma: Het vreemde kind. De kindertijd als sleutel tot onszelf (The Strange Child. Childhood as the key to ourselves), Bert Bakker Publishers. € 27.95
Dr Gerrit Breeuwsma is university lecturer in Developmental Psychology at the University of Groningen. He studied Developmental Psychology at the University of Groningen until 1985, and gained his PhD in 1993 with a thesis entitled Alles over ontwikkeling, een studie naar de grondslagen van de ontwikkelingspsychologie (Everything about development, a study of the principles of developmental psychology). Breeuwsma has published on diverse themes within psychology. In 2004, his book Psychologische zaken. Wegwijs in de werking van de geest (Psychological Affairs. A guide to the workings of the mind), which won third prize in the Intermediair Eureka Award competition for the best non-fiction book.
Dr G. Breeuwsma
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