Minors with morals

26th September 1997 at 01:00
We live in an age of great psychological curiosity. Instead of being hidden in the confessional, explanations or excuses for behaviour are out in the public domain, with even the royals explaining their behaviour in psycho babble. There are many television programmes and even more books obsessed with counselling and with finding general theories of why people behave as they do.

So what do children make of it? Many people think that children, in their innocence, have few explanations to offer for different forms of behaviour. However, children not only think about motivation and the causes of good behaviour, but experiment a great deal.

Like adults, children are clearly aware of the tensions between nature and nurture, between people behaving as they do because of genetic background or because of temperament and environment. On the one hand they see people as having innately unpleasant characteristics, and believe that the only way of preventing chaos is through punishment. Forexample: "Some people get off lightly because there isn't any capital punishment." (Girl, aged 12); "People do not have proper prison sentences." (Boy, 12).

When they look at the world as depicted on the news - rapes and murders, burglaries and hooliganism - it is perhaps no surprise that children view that segment of their experience as filled with innately unpleasant people, who need controlling.

But, on the other hand, they know that being bad is pervasive. It is not only others who behave badly: "I'm not always good. I don't think one can be good all the time." (Boy, 12); "If people annoy me I get cross and do bad things. " (Girl, 11).

Children do not pretend or deceive themselves about their own behaviour, and whilst their first reaction to being asked if they have ever hurt others - through bullying or teasing - is a denial, this does not last long. They know they have all been bullies as well as victims.

This leads children to realise that some of the differences in behaviour can be explained by circumstances. They do not just blame; they point out that some people cannot help it: "Sometimes it's not their fault. It's their parents' fault or friends who try to lead them on." (Girl, 12); "Because they can't help having something wrong with themselves. They live in an unpleasant house. " (Boy,10).

Their favourite explanations for bad behaviour are that people are either spoilt, or punished excessively. But being spoilt is considered the most common cause for unpleasantness; children getting their own way when they need more discipline, or doing whatever they want to when their parents should be in control.

According to the children, the result of these circumstances depends in the long run on temperament. Being brought up badly is a common experience; but only some cannot deal with it. The result shows in the everyday relationships with peers, where circumstances at home and school combine to cause difficulties: "Well, she's been through a rough patch...whenever somebody's not nice to her or they don't want to do things, she always takes...gets a bit frustrated and angry and takes it out on everyone...some children have been through a rough patch themselves so they take it out on other children. " (Girl, 8).

"Rough patches" are assumed to be caused at home, or by the treatment of the peer group. But the connection between personal hurt and taking it out on other people, between victimisation and bullying, is clearly drawn.

To children themselves, if not to the politicians, what happens in the early years is of vital importance. In their view, those who are badly influenced or who are not properly controlled will inevitably get worse. This is deemed the fault of the parents or the environment: "If they don't bring 'em up right, when they're older they're gonna be bad." (Boy, 9); "They're mean, and when they're mean they'll grow up to be mean." (Boy, 7).

This suggests that while children recognise innate individual differences in outlook and temperament, they also realise that human nature is redeemable.

The psychology that provokes bad behaviour includes the sense of guilt and shame. All children are assumed to have carried out unkind acts, but only a few have no developed conscience about it. It is as if children do not think they are born good, but that they strive towards goodness: "They feel like they shouldn't have done it. They feel like they should have said sorry." (Boy, 7); "Well, if they're really bad they won't stop. If they're just a little bit bad they might stop." (Girl, 7).

The moral world of children is, like their relationships, a complex one. Sometimes one wonders if they have more psychological insight than adults, that they are less egotistical. They see and analyse the world objectively rather than making excuses. They appear to have a sense of psychology rather than psycho babble.

Cedric Cullingford is professor of education at the University of Huddersfield. His books include Children and Society and The Inner World of the School, both published by Cassell

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