November 02, 2002
What sort of animal are we?

I've just done a(nother) posting over at Samizdata about a dog-training lady by the name of Jan Fennell. Fennell, in her book The Dog Listener makes much of the similarities between her work and that of Monty Roberts, "the man who listens to horses". Both these "trainers" started out by asking about the nature of the species they were dealing with. Roberts started with horse nature, and Fennell with dog nature. (Basically, horses are herd animals, and dogs are pack animals.) And then they each communicated with their animals by trying to communicate the way a horse communicates with other horses in the herd, and the way dogs do in their dog pack.

My question is: what sort of animal is a human child? What behavioural signals does a human child naturally respond to? Natalie Solent, in connection with her recollections of starting out as a teacher (in a comment here on this), recalled being told "never turn your back on them". Is that merely war psychology as she implied, or is that perhaps a more basic human behavioural signal?

The problem that we as humans have in thinking of our fellow humans in this way is that, being in the thick of human society ourselves, we are unable to get outside it, and see it the way a psychologist of another species, so to speak, would see us. I'm sure that if I were a high IQ spider, or a high IQ dog, say, I would observe obvious things that humans do with each other that make them utterly distinct from spiders and dogs - things which we humans don't find it easy to notice, the way we can register spider nature or dog nature.

Another way of phrasing the same question is to ask: what is it that gives some teachers "natural" authority? Why will children queue up to learn from one teacher and hang on his or her every word, while refusing to attend to another unless coerced or terrorised?

The debate about "freedom for children", "taking children seriously" and so on, seems to hinge on the view taken by the critics of such notions that they involve treating children as something different from what they truly are. To "give" children "too much" freedom is said to violate their essential nature. That is how it appears from the anti side. Yet for the pro-freedom team (which includes me) letting children do things their way seems to us precisely to be working with the grain of their nature, rather than against it.

I realise that knowledge is power, and that power can be used both to do good and to do harm. The teacher who knows all about child nature could then shamelessly manipulate or indoctrinate or brainwash his charges. However, it's worth remembering, in this connnection, that Monty Roberts started listening to horses precisely so that he could persuade them to obey him without him torturing them, in the manner of the horse trainers (horse "breakers") he seeks to influence and/or supplant. Fennell's passion is learning to be the kind of dog owner who does not drive her dogs crazy but who instead makes a happy life both for herself and for them.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:18 PM
Category: Parents and children
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