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Opinion & Essays - Oct, 1994 Issue #30 

What Do You Think?
ARE CHILDREN BORN GOOD? 

("Lacking all sense of right and wrong, a child can do nothing which is morally evil, or which merits either punishment or reproof." - J. J. Rosseau) ("To make your children capable of honesty is the beginning of education." - John Ruskin

Are children born good or not? This is an interesting question, and I think an important one for anyone who works with children. There seem to be two lines of thought, that could be referred to in 1994 as the Traditionalist and Progressive viewpoints. The following are some examples of differing viewpoints from current public debate. 

At-Risk Teenagers

TRADITIONALISTS - the existence of these children in such record high numbers is largely a result of burdens and restrictions society has placed on parents, rendering their parenting less effective, and the solution is to get off the backs of parents. 
PROGRESSIVES - the existence of these children in such record high numbers is largely a result of poor parenting, and the solution requires social programs to teach parents how to do the job right, or replace the parents with competent adults who can do the job right. 

Children's Rights

TRADITIONALISTS - the growth of children's rights reduces the parent's influence and thus gives children greater opportunity to make self-destructive decisions.
PROGRESSIVES - the growth of children's rights reduces the ability of parents and the community to teach children self-destructive attitudes. 

Poverty

TRADITIONALISTS - poverty is primarily the result of individual choices, and children born into poverty can best be helped by supporting and strengthening the institutions of family and community which can teach them constructive behaviors and attitudes. 
PROGRESSIVES - poverty is a major cause of destructive behaviors and children born in poverty can best be helped by social programs and welfare to ensure they do not grow up in poverty. 

Parents

TRADITIONALISTS - in most cases, parents are a major part of the solution. 
PROGRESSIVES - in most cases, parents are a major part of the problem. 

Families

TRADITIONALISTS - the ideal environment for raising children is in a family headed by a father and mother who are married and who parent with firmness and love. 
PROGRESSIVES - children are best raised by adults who love them. Single parents, foster parents and same sex couples can do as well as traditional families so long as the adults love and care for the children. 

Crime 

TRADITIONALISTS - some people are incorrigible, or are too resistant to making positive change so they must be locked up to protect the rest of us. 
PROGRESSIVES - there is a good person somewhere behind even the most hardened criminal. We just need to work harder to find ways to reach and rehabilitate that good person. 

Childhood

TRADITIONALISTS - this is a preparation time to learn from adults how to fit into society as a constructive member.
PROGRESSIVES - we spend 18 years growing up, and the rest of our life recovering from it. 

Los Angeles Riots

TRADITIONALISTS - a prime example of how people will revert to stealing, looting and violence when the "civilizing" influences of family, community and civil authority break down. 
PROGRESSIVES - a prime example of how the "righteous anger" of oppressed minorities will occasionally explode until their grievances are satisfied. 

On these issues, most youth professionals have some mix between the Traditional and Progressive viewpoints. But there is a common thread, and understanding the root assumption is helpful in understanding where a proponent of some viewpoint might be coming from. 

The Traditionalist view is based largely on the Judeo-Christian view of human nature as being born capable of sin, so they would start with the view that children are NOT born good, but capable of both good and bad. As an example, William Bennett wrote his "Book of Virtues" as a tool to be used by parents in what he sees as their vital function in "civilizing" children by teaching them moral values the children might not pick up on their own. As another example, J. D. Salinger in his "Lord of the Flies" painted a picture of a savage and violent society created by children when adult supervision and direction are missing. 

The Progressive view has more secular influence, and would start with the view that children ARE born good, but that negative and destructive behavior is learned from their environment which is mostly parents and immediate community. Proponents would see a new-born baby as pure, innocent and incapable of duplicity, lying, or antisocial behaviors. Antisocial behavior by a teenager would be considered learned behavior. What Do You Think?  - Lon 

Copyright 1994, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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