11. The need of children

This Post, by Åse Skeppholm and Philip Booth, the authors of this blog, is intended as an introduction to Post 12, a piece written by Stefan Hlatky and published at the same time. We intend to follow up Post 12 with two or three further Posts, by ourselves, on the subject of children.

  1. Hlatky’s view is that the need of children – and that means of every human being – is to understand the whole reality, because only in that way can they understand themselves and the meaning of their life.
  2. In order to achieve this understanding, a certain kind of thinking is required of us, as discussed in the Introduction to Understanding Reality:

“The reflection that is required of us […] is different from the complicated, intellectual thinking that is promoted by our educational system and that we are so used to today. We need to return to the kind of reflection on our immediate experience that we had as children. It is part of Hlatky’s thesis that children ask all the right questions to arrive at a logical understanding of the original cause of the world around us, but that they generally give up their quest at a certain point because the grown-ups are confused and cannot answer the children’s questions satisfactorily.”

  1. For Hlatky understanding the whole reality means understanding its original cause. This is the original problem of philosophy. The commonly accepted view is that this problem is not solvable or only worth saying something about if you are an expert, be it scientific or religious. And yet children invariably show an interest in the subject, once they have worked their way through more everyday and local examples of cause and effect. In doing this – asking their questions, which, to adults, seem interminable – they represent the hope for the future philosophically, and prevent complete suppression of the subject by the adults.
  2. And yet children’s enquiries about the big questions of life – life’s origin and meaning – often make their parents uneasy. The parents can feel that their answers are inadequate. Or they can feel embarrassed that there is something they don’t understand and can’t explain to their children. Or they can want to pass on answering the questions to others, knowing that the child is likely to regard it as odd that the parents are not clear on the subject. Or the parents may not wish to sound dogmatic by saying anything too definite, particularly about God, feeling uneasy about the basis on which they might state any such belief. Or they may fear being stumped by the child’s fearsome logic.
  3. Or if, by contrast, the parents confidently state an atheistic view, they cannot avoid having to deal with the consequences of that view in the child’s attitude to life – fear of death being the most obvious.
  4. Children set out on their task of understanding reality from the very start of their lives. They do it non-verbally to begin with, but are guided by an unconsciously held view that life is meaningful, and of a piece, and that it is good. This is reinforced by their experience that everything they need is provided for: in terms of their bodily needs, essentially by their parents; and in terms of their principal need – the need for relationship, companionship, love – by the very existence of other people.[1]
  5. Child-rearing, on this view, then becomes a question of keeping this view (which is initially held unconsciously and non-verbally) alive in the child when that view has the chance to become conscious – as it ought to become – through the acquisition of language. (And this is where our last Post, about the function of language, comes in.) It is at this point, obviously, that things can go astray if illogical answers are given to the child’s questions. Hlatky describes this process in Post 12 accompanying this Post.
  6. Child-rearing has come to be seen nowadays as the task of developing each child’s ‘full potential’ while avoiding passing on any psychological ‘hang-ups’ the parents may have. This is based on the view that human beings are basically developable (rather than that we remain basically the same throughout our lives). This view of child-rearing is in stark contrast to Hlatky’s view that the task of the parents – indeed of society as a whole – is to keep alive in the child this felt sense of a meaningful connection to a meaningful, purposeful reality.
  7. The child’s persistent ‘why?’ – implying that everything has an understandable purpose – should give the parents the clue to this orientation in the child. ‘How?’ – the primary question in an atheistic view – is secondary to ‘why?’ for the child. And yet the child is often encouraged towards regarding ‘how?’ as the primary question by parents who feel more comfortable answering ‘how?’ than ‘why?’ So, for example, in answer to the question ‘Why does it snow?’, the technical answer about air temperature and water droplets generally comes more readily to mind – and is actually an answer to the question ‘how?’ – than the answer that it snows when it gets cold in order to provide a covering for the plants to keep them warm. That is an answer that relates to the ‘why?’, the purpose.
  8. But if the parents stick with the why and the child’s search to understand the original cause and meaning, it only remains for them to introduce the word ‘God’, representing the creator of everything – the original cause – in the way that Hlatky suggests in his piece. The idea of a conscious original cause will readily fit the child’s sense that the whole reality is purposeful: that reality must have a conscious being behind it.
  9. The importance of the parents’ – and society’s – task is stated by Hlatky no more strongly than in his article, written in 1976, The Organic View of Unity (Chapter 3 of Understanding Reality) [UR pp.166-7]:

“The belief in life, the belief in the living unity, and the religious thinking linked with that belief, are part of the innate human characteristic that distinguishes us from animals. If human language – the tool that religion uses to answer children’s questions about the meaning of life – is impoverished by having its role restricted to that of making only mechanical descriptions and connections, this will still not get rid of this characteristic. We must realise that the greatest conceivable offence against children is to prevent them from developing their innate feeling for the living unity of existence.

[…] With all their natural questions about life and reality, children constantly try to put a living image together. But the attempt is futile so long as it is the generally accepted practice in upbringing and education to gloss over their questions with a vague reference to the progress of technology. Technology offers only the mass production of data and ‘truths’ that relate to a dead, mechanical view of life. Given such ‘progress’, mental health can only deteriorate with each generation.”

Footnote:

1. Hlatky interprets the infant’s first smile as reflecting its realisation that it has this company that it needs (see also Post 4).

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