One reason I love Bob Koehler’s weekly political analysis at Common Wonders is that he is knows a lie when he sees it. Bob’s analysis consistently “contradicts the thesis of human autonomy.” Most of us, including politicians and law enforcement experts, don’t even know that human autonomy is a speculative theory at best. They believe in it as an article of faith, and in his latest post, "Zero Tolerance" — about the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing — Bob points out how that faith has led to disastrous results for children and youth, especially in policing practices.
If you take human autonomy as your starting point, you lose sight of the most central characteristic of human nature: we learn who we are and how to behave from one another. How we treat children is who they will become.
This bit of wisdom has gone by many names, among them the popular notion of the “self-fulfilling prophecy.” If teachers consistently have low expectations for certain groups of kids — say, minorities or those labeled as “problem kids” — the kids will meet those meager expectations but rarely exceed them. Why? Because our sense of identity is not something we own or develop in isolation. We become ourselves in and through the significant relationships that nurture us from the cradle and envelop us as we move out into the world.
When police officers and teachers greet children with suspicion, as problems to manage as if they are expendable and useless to the world, why would we be surprised that such a thing as the “school-to-prison pipeline” exists? Bob isn’t. And though he finds some hopeful signs for a change of heart in the Task Force’s report, he is also rightly skeptical. Because though the report shows signs of mimetic insights, Bob tells us that it fails dismally at telling the truth about our “nation’s history of slavery and Jim Crow segregation and any current manifestation of institutional racism.” Addiction to the illusion of autonomy is an addiction to a lie, so telling the truth is out of character, to say the least. Sadly, autonomy is a lie that enables us to blame the kids who become inmates rather than examine our complicity in their failure to thrive.
The Task Force calls for a shift in law enforcement culture from a “warrior mindset” to that of a “guardian” role. It acknowledges that a better goal for policing is protection, rather than enforcement or suppression of crime. Bravo! A sure way to change outcomes for kids is to change attitudes of the adults that engage with them.
What if the police actually saw it as their duty to protect children and adolescents from mistreatment and abuse, even and especially the mistreatment and abuse that can come from the police? Not only would this change outcomes for kids, it has the potential to change our entire society. Because when we treat children as a problem to manage, we are depriving our world of a valuable resource that comes from the children themselves.
It’s been a long time since we thought of children as miniature adults. We’ve known for over one hundred years that childhood is a special and unique stage in human development. The Task Force actually acknowledged the need for officers to be “trained in child and adolescent development.” Wouldn’t that be a game changer! But I’d like to suggest we take it a step further, a step that Dr. Maria Montessori encourages us to take. We owe the understanding of childhood as a distinct stage of development in large part to her work.
Here's where she pushed this insight further: We ought not to consider the child and the adult merely as successive phases in the individual’s life. We ought rather to look upon them as two different forms of human life, going on at the same time, and exerting upon one another a reciprocal influence. The child and the adult are in fact two different and separate parts of humanity which should interpenetrate and work together in the harmony of mutual aid. The idea that is hard for adults to swallow, even harder to swallow than the illusion of human autonomy, is that we might be better off if we let children set the tone and content of our policing policies.
The mimetic insight works both ways: Yes, we make children into our own image, but they can remake us into their image if we let them.
As Dr. Montessori puts it, “… Not everyone realizes that the child is a wonderfully precious aid to the adult, and that he can, and should… exercise a formative influence on the adult world.”
Wasn’t the influence of children exactly what Jesus was advocating when he admonished his rivalrous disciples to "change and become like children?" It has taken two thousand years for us to see that it is the children themselves who will make such a change possible.
Can we learn to see children as resources rather than burdens? When will we admit that we need children more than they need us?
That would make a poignant argument for pushing ourselves to make the effort to change — for the sake of our children, and for the sake of our shared future.