Tabula Rasa versus Child Development: Deep Views on Human Nature Matter

With the work I do on the age-related stages that children go through, I’ve learned that our deep views on human nature matter profoundly. Our entire thought paradigms on how to raise a child into an adult are heavily influenced by what we think of human nature itself. It tends to influence and be influenced by our thoughts on ethics. I’ve found in doing this work that in order to push the agenda I am pushing, which is to lean into child development fully, long standing views on human nature need challenged. This means that longstanding views on ethics need challenged. As I’ve more than learned: this will be no small feat.

The longstanding view on human nature is that the inner world, if left alone, is uncivilized. It is either outright bad itself or at least in need of a taming, civilizing ethics. This is exactly what I am challenging.

The view on human nature for the past century is that we are born, as some call it “tabula rasa”–with a “blank slate.” The best way I’ve been able to describe tabula rasa is that we are born with an internal emotional mechanism, but that this mechanism is like a wild horse that we have to tame. Sure, everyone agrees we’re born with emotions–but the longstanding view is that we can tell these emotions what to do for us. Without strong thoughts and strong ethics, this internal mechanism, this “horse” will do terrible things and cause damage.

This idea of a blank slate dominated the 20th century. It gives rise to the idea of a “self made” man, but not self made as in accomplished but as in stylizing your own soul. The only real question was who tames this horse and how. Should we program that inner world to be altruistic such as to blend into the bigger community? Or should it be programmed to value rationality and productivity? Whether the thinker was B.F. Skinner or Ayn Rand, they all operated on this blank slate theory.

With this work I do on child development, I unequivocally reject this idea of a blank slate. I as such reject the need to “civilize” a child. This is the heart and soul of my main challenge in all of my work, whether its child development or philosophical. We do not need to restrain, control, or tame the inner world. We can liberalize it and let it do its thing. That “horse” is already designed astonishing well.

I say this so forcefully because of the child development work I do. I document the age-related “stages” children go through. These are times when a child falls apart for some time, at highly predictable age-related times, but then show an astonishing burst of new ability. Children might become whiny, aggressive, clumsy, uncoordinated, confused, they might purposely lie, etc. But on the other side of this is a calm child with an astonishing new ability.

I find these stages are dual natured. A child who enters a stage in which they playfully blame others for what they do is soon to take on an astonishing amount of personal responsibility. The child who plays around with lying is soon to be a child who can call others out on their lying. A child who won’t back off when upset is a child who will seen follow through on the projects they start.

This is why I do not punish nor correct any of it. I sit back and watch the behavior, usually over the course of weeks, to see what is going on. I provide safety to everyone in the house, but I do not seek to fundamentally alter the child. Each time, I have found the behavior dissipates and what was in store was amazing. This is the idea behind my book series about this, Misbehavior is Growth.

You might see how counter this view is to any modern thought on parenting. A child who is hitting or lying or blaming others is seen by most adults as something to correct or even punish. Even “positive parenting” doesn’t see the misbehavior as something to watch with wonder. It sees misbehavior as perhaps likely temporary but as something to correct “positively.” It’s still seen as a child’s inner world is like clay for us to mold.

I am saying it is not. Their growth is prewired and that “horse” inside of them, while indeed wild and who bucks around a lot, is doing incredible, miraculous work.

The results of my parenting approach have been pretty jaw dropping. My argument is that, if that “misbehavior” is indeed brain growth, we should lean into it. We should learn what skill is forming and nurture it. I proudly, unapologetically advocate we nurture their forming intellectual skills. Nurturing these skills is not usually on people’s radar. Education is seen as something you do at school. It is seen as a cumbersome, burdensome task that we should put off as long as possible in the name of “play.” And it is often “the latest research in brain science” that advocates putting off any amount of education, which really enrages me. I propose education isn’t bad, but the insensitive, traditional, dry form of education we all know as “school” is what is bad. It’s not that; it’s how. We need to be observant and sensitive to children.

As I’ve watched the new forming intellectual skills in my children, I find they happily receiver whatever highly customized lesson I make for them. At 5, for instance, because I noticed my son understood how things change over a variable, I taught him angles. At 5-1/2, as children love heroic stories, I started reading history. In the early 2s, as children show they understand symbols, I taught letters. The list goes on. As I write this, my son, at 7, can do advanced math in his head, such as 82X7. At 6, he could figure out what plus -6 equal 119,114. He can recite more history and more science than most adults. He is going to be featured in a math book, still being written, by Denise Gaskins for prealgebra students for a math game he invented. My daughter could read by the time she was 3. She builds Legoes endlessly at 5 and can recite just about any plot line from the stories she loves to read.

I did not squash any part of my children’s internal or emotional development to do this, as is the usual argument against education at young ages. If they didn’t like a lesson, we stopped. I’m not trying to brag, but I want to impress upon you how much potential we can unleash by leaning in to children’s brain development.

He’s reading history and learning math by learning how pyramids were built

I have found that this is an ethical battle. The direct view of some philosophers is to take a child born “tabula rasa” and “transform” them into X. You see, this is profoundly opposite of what I am saying. You don’t need to “transform” children into anything. The amazing part of them is already there. There is this amazing apparatus that works in the background to build a child’s mind. That apparatus is exactly what I document with these age-related milestones. The “horse,” the background processes of the mind, does not need tamed. We should not mold it. We should understand it, respect it, and lean into it. Tabula rasa is directly in the way of this.

Blank slate theory assumes a child is like a piece of clay to be molded. When things go bad, the thought is to fix it. The expectation thus becomes that a child is mostly calm and anything else is wrong. Tabula rasa quite simply engenders a very authoritarian approach. Hands off! Get your hands off the very soul of a child. Let it flourish. Liberalize the inner world. They do not any civilizing ethics put on them. My argument is that the irritating behavior during each stage is a bid for connection. They certainly need us to come to them to help them, but in a benevolent, responsive mentoring role. Not a molding one.

This is why I wrote Towards Liberalism: A Challenge to Objectivist Ethics. Our ethical views need to change, and I’ve found there is nothing so stubborn as a person’s adopted ethical framework. The challenge gets even more complicated than what is presented here. Rugged individualism typically puts children into a classroom setting and expects them to rise or fall with how studious they are. Instead, adults should adopt a much more responsible role to guarantee the success of the child by actively monitoring a child’s development, which is what anyone who follows my work does. Children should have a rich environment in which they can play, grow, and experiment. We need an ethical framework of caregiving, to nurture, not rugged individualism. It really comes down to a basic resource issue. Monitoring a child’s development is unpaid labor, typically, and the kind of resources we put towards it are just abysmal. Moms, and 99.9% of my followers are moms, are not supported to do this work that the typically wish they could do more of. I could barely get this post written, in between constant demands from a 3 year old. I have to organize myself, politically and personally, for advocacy, in between constant demands for drinks and changing diapers.

People outside of mothers need to understand how important this is and fully uphold it. We need to stop throwing scraps at children, generation after generation, then telling them repeatedly to “get over” their bad childhood. Truly, the only question is: do we give a shit or not? Sorry for swearing, but this battle is so difficult that some rattling needs done.

If we do (give a shit), it is in these age-related milestones that you can see how important child development it is, how much work it is–and how worth it it is.

See also How Understanding Child Development Can Help Heal And Prevent Developmental Trauma

See Misbehavior is Growth.

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