What Do Children Need?
Apart from having its physical needs met, the primary needs of children are for stimulus and attention.
Children are genetically programmed to move about to explore their world and to focus their attention on an endless succession of natural phenomena which stimulates their emotional, intellectual and physical development. However, if you confine a child in a pram, pusher, basinet, cot or any other ‘imprisoned’ space, and particularly if you leave it inside a house or other building (devoid of natural stimuli such as sun, wind, rain, rocks, sticks, leaves, earth, sights, sounds and smells), the child is denied a natural range of movement and the environmental stimuli it needs for its development, including the development of its capacity to become self-reliant. See ‘Why Violence?’ and ‘Fearless Psychology and Fearful Psychology: Principles and Practice’.
Consequently, the child will now ‘require’ the attention (that is, stimulus) of another individual (which, in a nuclear family, will most usually be a parent) and delusionary artefacts such as toys, to compensate for the lack of natural stimuli in its confined and artificial space. The child’s natural capacity to pay attention to itself and its environment is thus systematically destroyed and this increases the pressure on parents to provide ‘endless’ amounts of ‘outside’ stimulus for the child which is vastly beyond what evolution intended and not what the child actually needs.
The point is that children need a certain amount of stimulus, and some of this in the form of attention from other humans, so that its innate potential to develop a full range of emotional responses and to speak, for example, is realised. But it will make phenomenally good use of natural stimulus (and require a great deal less attention from others) if it has the opportunity to do so. And it will use this learning to become self-reliant.
The Importance of Listening
The most important form of attention that anyone, including a child, requires is listening. Listening, in this context, has a precise meaning and it is invariably done extremely badly, particularly by parents in relation to their own children.
Did you know that the simple act of not listening to how a child feels destroys it emotionally and makes it powerless? If you want to destroy a child, you do not have to do anything else. Unfortunately, all parents do not listen (to a greater or lesser extent) to the feelings of their children. Hence our world of powerless individuals.
When someone speaks, apart from uttering words, they also convey feelings (which might be very subtle). Therefore, any communication consists of intellectual and emotional content and both of these elements need to be heard if you wish to understand what a speaker is trying to convey. Given that human beings are taught to focus on the intellectual content of any communication and learn to fear its emotional content, it is not surprising that few people are naturally good listeners and few people have benefited from the effort made in recent decades to learn some of the art of listening (through, for example, workshops that teach ‘reflective listening’).
Virtually all humans learn to unconsciously screen out the emotional content of the communications of other people. Why? Because listening to the feelings of another person is likely to ‘trigger’ feelings in the listener, and this can be frightening. For example, if someone is angry with you, do you find it easy to calmly listen to their anger and then reflect, for example, ‘You sound very angry that I did not listen to you’ and, if necessary, to then listen more while they tell you how angry they are with you? Most people ‘listening’ in this circumstance are immediately frightened into a defensive reaction which exacerbates the speaker’s sense of being unheard and their fear and anger in response to this. And the ‘listener’ is now scared and needs listening about their own fear as well. So the competition to ‘get the listening’ (usually in the form of an argument) quickly spirals down into ‘no-one is listening’.
There are, of course, more mundane reasons for not listening to a child. How many parents are able to listen to a child say that it doesn’t want to go to school? Listening to this might be quite inconvenient for the parent. And frightening if it becomes the norm. For most parents, it is easier to not listen (that is, to ignore the child’s communication) and to fall back on violence: force the child to attend school.
If you cannot listen to someone’s feelings, then you cannot listen to all of what they are trying to communicate. And, in order to listen well, it is necessary to be unafraid of any of your own feelings that might be raised by their communication.
Given that virtually all people are scared of feelings (which are often seen as ‘inappropriate’ in particular social contexts) and the power these feelings give the individual to resist their own oppression, there is ‘good’ reason why children are systematically terrorised into suppressing their awareness of how they feel. After all, if you want an obedient slave who fits readily into one of the approved roles in existing society, it is vital that its emotional power is destroyed. People who are emotionally powerful make appalling slaves.
And we do want slaves. If we wanted people to be genuinely free and powerful, and to know what words like ‘liberty’ and ‘democracy’ really meant, then we would give freedom and democracy to our children, including the right to choose whether or not they go to school. You cannot force a child to attend school – where it is imprisoned under the charge of a controlling adult who directs all activities under threat of violence (even if we delude ourselves by calling it ‘punishment’) for the slightest disobedience – and then expect it to genuinely comprehend the meaning of (as distinct from mouth the rhetoric of) words like ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’.
If we are to effectively tackle the full range of violent problems we face in the world – including war, environmental degradation and economic exploitation – then our strategy must include tackling violence at its source: the violence we adults inflict on children because we are afraid to listen to them and to let them make choices (and mistakes) for themselves.
If you wish to join the worldwide movement to end all violence, you are welcome to sign online 'The People’s Charter to Create a Nonviolent World'.
The true art of listening is to hear that which is unspoken.
Biodata: Robert has a lifetime commitment to understanding and ending human violence. He has done extensive research since 1966 in an effort to understand why human beings are violent and has been a nonviolent activist since 1981. He is the author of ‘Why Violence?’ His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and his website is here.