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Expanding Options

“In the United States today, there is a pervasive tendency to treat children as adults, and adults as children. The options of children are thus steadily expanded, while those of adults are progressively constricted. The result is unruly children and childish adults.” — Thomas Szasz

One wonders whether Szasz includes himself in the childish adult category. If so, it is presumably due to his having been treated as an adult when he was a child. If not, that is likely due to his being old enough to have avoided today’s unfortunate but “pervasive tendency” to treat children like adults. Even so, since his options are being “progressively constricted,” he may yet become a childish adult. Now just how silly is that?

Szasz may be partially correct, to the extent that adults do tend to lose the perspective that Jim Trelease encourages in The Read-Aloud Handbook, “The prime purpose of being four is to enjoy being four – of secondary importance is to prepare for being five.” The truly cool part of childhood is getting to be a child. Although getting to be an adult is certainly a very real goal, the most important business for a child is being a child.

There is, nonetheless, a fundamental fallacy in Szasz’s pronouncement. He posits a direct link between expanding children’s options and their becoming unruly. It seems fair to assume that he isn’t making what he thinks is a trivial point; so “unruly” doesn’t merely suggest a child’s misbehaving now and then or having occasional difficulty adjusting to the rules and expectations of adults. Rather, “unruly” suggests serious, ongoing issues related to a child’s adjustment, cooperation with adults, and pattern of conforming to expectations and rules at home, at school, and in the community. Most children are not unruly; but those who are unruly definitely have a problem needing attention.

This is the fallacy. Children becoming unruly isn’t caused by their being treated like adults or by their options being expanded. It’s caused by parents unsuccessfully dealing with the developmental and behavior challenges of their children. It’s caused by children being abused and neglected instead of protected and nurtured. It’s caused by children growing up in unstable families and chaotic neighborhoods. It’s caused by the failure of educators to educate. There are many causes; but expanding opportunity isn’t one of them.

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