Liverpool Daily Post (Nov 07)

Saturday, 02 April 2011 11:52

It's not the innocents who suffer, it's their poor Parents

Nov 26 2007 by Peter Elson, Liverpool Daily Post

IT IS a question as old as time. Are we born with original sin as imperfect beings? This nagging anxiety has latterly translated itself into the nature versus nurture argument. Do we possess a sense of innate goodness, an in-built ability to distinguish between right and wrong?

Yale University has concluded that babies as young as six months are able to tell the difference between good and bad behaviour. The kiddies, aged six to 10 months, were set a task to watch two colourful toy climbers struggling up a hill. In one scenario, the "goodie" toy helped the other, in the opposing set-up the "baddie" tried to stop him.

The researchers claim that the children were able to make a reasoned response to this situation.

In contrast, one can ask, will goodness prevail if a group of children were told to hold precious china for a long period?  Probably even if suffering regular exposure to the Antiques Roadshow, they would display a preference for breaking it and jumping up and down on the broken pieces.

The whole of children's comic book japery is predicated on the belief that children would far rather indulge in mischief-making and darker deeds than please their parents and other adults. Those that do, such as the poetry-loving Fotherington-Thomas, in the Molesworth books, are at best dismissed as hopeless wets and other terms denoting unnatural creatures.

The most serious aspect of such behaviour was explored by William Golding, in Lord of the Flies.

Then there's the whole nightmare of sibling rivalry, as any parent of more than one child will know. The surreptitious jabs and pokes and desperation to get the last word in, even if you laughably believe that the inter-offspring row has been quelled.

Ask any colleagues or friends of their earliest misdemeanours, and memories will centre around such incidents. Particular favourites include the desperate desire to communicate with the parent, no matter what time of the night or day. One friend of mine wanted to tell her father she'd found his hammer while rooting around the house at some ungodly hour. Finding him asleep in bed, her preferred method was to start hitting him on the forehead with it to wake him up. Anyway, luckily their doctor was a family friend and was able to attend quickly and ascertain that, once her father came round, he wouldn't suffer any permanent damage.

This lack of insight into pain and cranial damage can be firmly put down to nature in my opinion, not nurture. Those baby blue eyes might show an innocence, but they also display a self-interest as the whole being is focused on being helped as it cannot help itself. Manipulation of the adult world is the name of the game, which is survival. However, if you the parent do prevail, there may be modification over time into some sense of acting for a greater, or less destructive, good. We're talking about damage limitation here, in trying to make a less-bad child.

Plenty of adults are driven by two main forces, those of self-preservation and self-advancement to minimise the impact of a hostile world. You could take this to mean that it's no more than an adaptation of what they've learned as coping strategies as children.

"Babies can make their distress known to others, but those people won't necessarily respond in the way that babies need," says psychologist Dorothy Rowe.

"To survive, babies have to assess whether an adult will be helpful or not. So do toddlers for whom being able to read feelings is essential."

In the Yale experiment, when asked to decide on choosing a toy, the babies showed a strong preference for picking the toy that helped its climbing partner, rather than hindered it.

"Identifying good guys and bad guys is necessary for a baby's survival - and for our own as adults - but that ability does not make us innately moral," says  Rowe.

That comes about through the baby forming a bond with someone who mothers him or her. Only when that bond is formed, does the child want the mother's approval.