Respecting childhood autonomy

I explained yesterday that one of the most beloved figures in British home education was a raving lunatic who publicly advocated small children being able to work down coal mines, drive cars on public roads and have sex with any adult they cared to. I pointed out that these views made him very popular with the more thoughtful type of paedophile; the kind of man who seeks justification for his depravity. As a result of this, I was told by one person commenting that I had sunk to a new low! The most curious comment was by Elizabeth, who felt that my post was ‘beyond the pale’. She went on to say that ‘It would not be taking a child seriously to stand by and watch while they make a bad choice‘. In other words, if her child makes a sensible and wholesome choice, she allows it. If the choice is bad, she will seek to prevent the child from exercising this choice. How this differs in any way from conventional parenting, I have no idea.

At any rate, the general view seemed to be that no parent would follow Holt‘s advice on matters relating to sex. Let us assume for the moment that this is true. If parents who advocate childhood autonomy would not go as far as to allow their child to choose to go to bed with an adult, how far would they be prepared to go down the road of childhood autonomy? An apparently innocuous example which several parents have mentioned on this blog is the question of teeth cleaning. I have seen this topic crop up elsewhere on home education blogs, forums and lists. Let us then take it that some home educating parents who allow their children autonomy do not compel them to clean their teeth. This is of course not in the same league as allowing them to have sex with adults, is it? Indeed it is not; it can be worse.

Like most adults, I was forced to clean my teeth twice a day as a child. I did not always want to, but this made no difference. Many children, particularly two and three year-olds dislike teeth cleaning and parents almost invariably ride roughshod over these objections. Not some home educating parents though. They believe that children should be allowed to ‘choose’ not to undergo teeth cleaning if they are strongly opposed to the practice.

When I reach for the toothbrush last thing at night, it is not because I have been thinking about dental hygiene and the latest research on caries. It is rather a conditioned reflex. I have been trained, like one of Pavlov’s dogs, to clean my teeth before I get into bed. This is what parents generally do with their kids around teeth cleaning. They make the child get into a fixed routine of doing the thing every night until it becomes a part of the child’s innermost being. Eventually, the child will internalise the procedure and feel guilty if he fails to clean his teeth regularly. This is excellent. The results of neglecting teeth cleaning can extend far beyond a few cavities in the baby teeth. Only recently, a piece of research was published which suggested that regular teeth cleaning is associated with enhanced female fertility:

There is also a well established link between heart disease and poor oral hygiene. This is quite apart from the obvious danger that decayed teeth can lead to abscesses in the gums and below teeth. This can bring about blood poisoning and every year, people in this country die from such things.

A three year-old child is quite unable to make an informed choice about the long term implications of failing to maintain healthy teeth and gums. He is unlikely to be concerned about fertility or heart disease. All he cares about is the momentary irritation of the sensation of the tooth brush tickling his gums. Establishing a routine of dental hygiene is vital in early childhood and must become second nature to the child. Only then will he be sure to maintain the practice into adult life. It must become a conditioned reflex, a Pavlovian response to getting ready for bed at night.

Failure to instil the teeth cleaning habit in small children, while being done on the grounds of respecting their ‘rights’ and autonomy, runs the risk of shortening their lives and impairing their fertility. This is dangerously irresponsible. This is one example of respecting the autonomy of the child which we all know is currently practiced by some home educators. There are others, equally damaging to their child’s future physical and mental heath. The failure to set the developing child’s body clock correctly for a diurnal life, caused by not insisting on regular bedtimes, for example. Under the guise of being liberal and right-on, these parents are harming their children and laying up problems for their future. Holt’s ideas about all this are monstrously wrong and following any of his advice is likely to harm children. Chuck out How Children fail and destroy any copies you come across of Escape from Childhood! The man was a dangerous crank.


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