I am sitting in my study, in front of my PC, writing this article on how we perceive children nowadays. Behind me my daughter Maha, 7 this month, is drawing on my ‘reporter’s pad’. Whenever I get stuck, which is about every other sentence, I turn around to ask Maha a few questions. ‘Maha’, I say at one juncture, ‘What would you like to see in the future?’. Even before I have finished the question I begin to feel foolish. After all, what perception can a child of seven possibly have of the future? ‘You mean tomorrow?’ she asks.
‘No. I mean a long time from now.’
‘Next month?’
‘No many months from now.’
‘Let’s see’. She closes her eyes. ‘I like to see lots of happy children. And grown ups too. I don’t want to see those children we saw on television. The ones who had nothing to eat. I would like to see them with lots of toys. I don’t like fighting. I do like to see children playing with each other. And grown ups too. I like my teacher Mrs Black. I wish we all have teachers like her. And I like schools. I wish there were lots of schools’. She opens here eyes; and then continues with her drawing.

Talk about imagination, perception, observation and reasoning and how can anyone argue that the child, by virtue of being a child, does not posses these qualities? Whenever I engage the imagination of my children, I discover that they see much more than I do, are much more deductive and in their questions, there may or may not be naivete, but there are always perceptions of the problem that I would never think of. Yet, everything and everybody around me is trying to tell me that the child is an inferior version of the adult: a loveable, unthinking, delicate being ‘who should be seen and not heard’, and who is also dependent, unreliable, wilful – someone who needs to be controlled, guided, told what is Right and what is Wrong, protected from itself and educated and shepherded into adulthood.

Take, for example, the child’s power of reasoning. One of the most eminent of contemporary behaviourist psychologists, Clark Hull, argues that the essence of reasoning lies in the joining together of two ‘behaviour segments’ in some novel way, never actually performed before, so as to reach a goal. This definition of reasoning is derived from experiments on rats. In a maze, like in the diagram below, the rats are persuaded to run in various directions for small rewards. Suppose that the rat learns to run from A to B to get a small reward; from A to C to get an equally small reward; from C to D to get a much bigger reward. Now if you place him at A and he chooses to take the pat A – C – D, instead of A – B, he must be reasoning that you can get to D from this path as he has never been from A to D that way before. Leaving statistical probability apart, rats do not behave that way. So what about children?

Two proteges of Hull devised a similar, now classic, experiment for children. Howard and Tracy Kendler set up a two stage sequence which involved pressing the correct one of two buttons to get a marble; and of inserting the marble into a small hole to release a toy. The Kendlers found that children could learn the separate bits easily, but could not ‘integrate’ the two tasks. They could get the marble, and they could use the marble to get the toy; but they not proceed directly from one stage to the next without help. Conclusion: children, like rats, are no capable of deductive reasoning! (1).

So we have scientific proof that children are stupid versions of adults. Yet, when one sees a group of children in action in any classroom, it is researchers like the Kendlers, and child psychologists like Hull who come out as daft. If one treats children like rats and monkeys, it is hardly surprising that they behave like them. Simon Hewson in his doctoral thesis tried to treat children with a little more dignity (2). The work of both the Kendlers and Hewson is described by Margaret Donaldson, in Children’s Mind (3). Donaldson replaced the button-placing mechanism in the Kendler experiments with drawers that children could open and close, thus taking away the mystery of the first stage of the experiment. Then she helped the children to understand that there was no ‘magic’ involved in the selection of marbles – all marbles could lead to the toy. These two changes took the success rate from 30 to 90 per cent for five-year-olds, and 35 to 72.5 per cent for four-year-olds. After all the children could, given the fact that they are treated with dignity and approached at their level of understanding, perform tasks of deductive reasoning.

The key word here is treated. What we learn from them and about them. And we treat them as though they had no imagination, no perception worthy of name and were quite incapable of thinking. Children’s toys personify this approach to children. This very moment, Zaid, my younger son, is playing with a toy called the transformer; and Maha is engaged with her Care-bear. A transformer is a humanoid robot that, when a few knobs are turned and a few hinges are twisted, turns into a car. A complex robot with an array of gadgetry, reproduced in all its detail, turns into another complex gadget complete in all detail. And that is it: the transformer does not have any other function: one useless Thing that turns into another useless Thing. Moreover, it is a useless thing that leaves nothing to the imagination: the child cannot even create an alternative function for the toy. It is designed to limit and suffocate the child’s imagination. (So why did I give in and buy the silly thing in the first place?)

A Care-bear is a benign looking, colourful, toothless chipmunk, with hearts on his legs and an embroidery of something nice stuck on his stomach. Maha’s one is bluish green, with a picture of a sun-flower-shaped little girl on its belly. The blurb accompanying the toy tells you in three languages that ‘Care-bears are thirteen roly-poly little bears who live high up in a land of rainbows and fluffy clouds called Care-a lot. They are always keeping an eye on things down on earth and whenever you want to share your feeling with others, they come right down to help.’ So, in essence, a Care-bear is a cuddly, all-seeing, all-knowing, nylon fairyland vigilante who has an eye on the child’s inner soul. You know where you are with a Care-bear – everything is laid out for you; when you are upset call on your moral guardian who will come down from Care-a-lot to share your feelings.

Care-bears, transformers and so many other toys are designed to replace a child’s imagination with the notions of the dominant culture and its world-view. Once upon a time there were dolls: they were bland, blank, sterile things. You gave one to a little girl and left it to her imagination; she invented characters and functions to fill in the blanks a pretend baby, an imaginary friend, a patient, her audience or her punch bag. The doll did not lay down the law. But today there is no such thing as a doll. There are Cindies and Barbies, Cabbage face dolls and Bonnies. They are not toys but concepts; one cannot play with them in the conventional sense of using ones imagination to create a world but the world is created for you, all the details are already fill in. Children have little to do but to follow the conceptual grid laid out for them.
And along with the concept in the shape of a Cindy, a Care-bear or a transformer comes ideology wrapped in the plastic. Most modern toys are not designed with play in mind; they are designed to promote an ideology of consumerism and possession, fashion and trend, violence and domination. Many of these toys are not good for anything except possession. They have one assigned function. Since the child cannot imagine for itself, cannot reason for itself, its mind might as well be filled with a world-view that he or she will inherit.

The crudest manifestation of this manipulation of children is found in children’s comics. The vast majority of comics contain stories set firmly in the future, a world of violence and death where brute power is the only law. A recent issue of Eagle (4), a comic that I used to read a as child, contains the lead story called Doomlord, whose evil hero Enok, half-alien, half-human, from the planet Rombos, is out to destroy his even more evil father. A second story has two even more computerised robots battling with each other. In the penultimate frame, one destroys the other with the words: ‘You underestimate you computer, you deranged Russky! I may have a few Japanese chips but I am British through and through. I’ll never betray my Queen and country!’. Violence, Death and Domination lurk at every turn of the page. One story is actually called ‘Death wish’. But Eagle is mild fare compared to Masters of the Universe, an unwitting parody of European civilization and its technological gadgetry. He-Man and other heores of Masters of the Universe are all white Anglo-Saxon All-American luminaries.

But nothing compares with 2000AD for banal violence and unashamed promotion of the ideology of brute power. Here’s the scenario as described in recent collected strips: ‘Welcome to the 22nd Century! The place is Mega-City One, the man is Judge DreddInvested with the power to hand out justice, Judge Dredd’s courtroom is on the streets themselves. When you job is to ensure that 400,000,000 citizens obey the letter of the law, there can be no time for lengthy trials or learned defence pleas. Naturally, Dredd is not alone in this role of judge, jury and sometimes executioner. Were you to be transported to Mega-City One now the first thing you’d see would be the judge waiting, watching!Some judges are close to Judge Fargo, the father of justice. One member of his elite corps is Judge Dredd himself. He has known nothing else but the law. He is the lawThe citizens of Mega-City One do not realise it, but the Judges are vital to their existence as a civilised society

Citizens of Mega-City One, the only remains of a post nuclear holocaust world, live in huge tower blocks which house 60,000 inhabitants each. The block is their sole means of identity; and since all their work is done by robots, they have nothing more to do than fight each other. To ensure that the reader should have no opportunity to question the bases of the story, a vast quantity of information is provided on Mega-City One; even the machine Judge Dredd rides is described in minute detail right down to its engine specifications.

Judge Dredd, Masters of the Universe, Care-Bears, Transformers and their ilk, are not simply toys or comics. They are also television services, films, posters, badges, T-shirt decorationthey are an industry. An industry which has only one subject: to get the children to consume more and more and promote the world-view that is the ideological basis of this industry. Thousands, indeed millions, of children throughout the world grow up wanting to be Judge Dredd or behave like Cindy. Today’s fantasies lay the foundations of tomorrow’s reality. The comic stories of the fifties and sixties, glorifying laser guns are today transformed into President Reagan’s Star Wars programme.

Today’s comics and television programmes, not to mention that ultimate tool of cultural subversion, the Hollywood movie, supported by research in child psychology and behavioural sciences, are preparing the child to accept the ultimate fantasy – the domination of Western culture over the globe. And if this domination requires the use of brute force, so be it. This is how Judge Dredd and He-Man would have done it. Who else but a generation whose mind has been filled with such jingoism could accept the necessity nuclear weapons and Star Wars? If it is accepted that children are capable of reasoning for themselves, have imaginations much more powerful than those of the adults, are capable of observing the subtleties that adults overlook, then children would have to be allowed to accept their ideas, their imaginations, their observations. Then they might grow up with their own ideas, questioning the mental fodder they have been fed, even coming up with alternatives to the dominant system! How can that be allowed?
Moreover, the entire weight of modern medicine is thrown on those children who show a little individuality, and resist the forces of conformity. Both Maha and Zaid were classified as ‘hyper-active’ because they were, and are, jumpy, would not sit still, would not sleep, could not concentrate on one thing for too long. The diagnosis had all the aura of scientific precision and considered judgement. Drugs were prescribed and I was told that they are in for a difficult childhood. It will be easier for you to have them treated than suffer endless sleepless nights, I was told. Not only did I refuse to administer any drugs to cure their ‘hyperactivity’, I kept them away from all doctors who remotely wanted to advise me on the problem. The ideology behind this diagnosis itself works as a political sedative because it regards non-conventional behaviour and non-conformity as a medical problem and therefore strips the child not only of the political possibility that he/she may confront the systems when he/she grows up but also of the personal possibility of asserting him or herself. By converting social problems into medical ones or into subjects of ‘behaviour modification’, the ideology encourages the child to surrender his/her right to confront, question, challenge – to be him/herself. Judge Dredd does not like anybody questioning the system: if the laws are oppressive and inhuman, tough luck. The introduction to a collection of Judge Dredd stories warns: ‘don’t let a judge catch you laughing at him – ridicule carries a mandatory 5-year stretch in the cubes!’

Imagine what would happen to countless children throughout the world treated for hyperactivity or some equally ridiculous made-up childhood disease such as ‘withdrawal’ or ‘ego-disturbances’ by such dubious treatments as ‘impulse control’, ‘attitudinal correction’ and ‘behaviour control’, ‘psychosurgery’ and the like. A child who grows up accepting as normal the constant answering about his private life, his family, his emotional health, would not be much troubled when the same questions are asked by credit companies, his employers, the police, or government institutions. A child who learns to accept drugs as a socially acceptable way of fighting emotional disturbances, will not think twice of turning to alcohol ro hallucinogens when he or she grows up.

Such notions of childcare, whether derived from medicine or psychology, are not based on a simple observation that the child is a mini-version of the adult with a somewhat different set of qualities and skills. Because adulthood is a reference from which a child is judged, childhood is considered to be an inferior and imperfect transitional state to adulthood.

In the western world-view, the child is an inferior, lower level of being. In Christian theology, the idea of Original Sin ensures that every child is born condemned for the unworthy behaviour of Adam and Eve in Paradise. Only after the child has been baptised, by adults of course, will the guilt be absolved. This Christian theology makes the child an evil, inferior entity, straight from the moment of its arrival. Evil and immortality are inherent in the child; and if it is left alone, if uncared for and unshepherded by adults, the intrinsic evil and immorality will consume the child on its way to adulthood. William Golding, Nobel laureate and novelist, provides an excellent illustration of the western notion of childhood in The Lord of the Flies (5). A critique of flag-waving Boys Own adventures, Goldings group of children who find themselves stranded on a desert island are innately evil. The Christian choirboys embrace an atavistic paganism and the society they create for themselves is based on oppression and subjugation. The strongest are simply evil; the weak, as personified by Piggy, are ugly and incompetent. The strong are intent on murdering the weak. Order returns when an adult arrives and the murderers are revealed as the children that they are. Thus, Golding makes it amply clear that the defects of society are infact defects of nature; it is in our nature to be innately evil and in unsocialised children this evil simply comes to the fore. I was taught The Lord of the Flies at school; it was mandatory reading for ‘O’ level English. Today too, this is what the teachers teach the children learn.

The western notion of the child contrasts as sharply with the Islamic idea of childhood as William Golding’s children differ from Ibn Tufayl’s teenager, Hayy. Islam teaches that every child is born innocent, pure and good; it is his upbringing and environment that shape his character, subvert the inherent goodness in him and impose evil on his framework of thought. Ibn Tufayl’s novel, written in the twelfth century, has a young boy, Hayy bin Yaqzan, stranded on a desert island (6). The young boy grows up to be a nature loving character who through the use of reason and a systematic process of inquiry, described in practical detail by Ibn Tufayl, becomes a strong believer in God. At the beginning of the novel, Hayy does not question the reality around him. His early way of living, association with and dependence on a doe, is seldom accompanied by any attempt at explaining why the facts are as they seem; nor is he aware of the incompleteness, inefficiency and the lack of sophistication of his knowledge. However, slowly he develops a profound sensitivity to his surroundings and his basic needs and problems, combined with a passionate curiosity for knowledge and interpretation of facts. His consciousness leads him to become a morally responsible being and eventually to the realisation of an omnipotent Creator. The same story in the hands of a European turns into something else. It is now widely accepted in academic circles that Daniel Defoe plagiarised Ibn Tufayl. But Robinson Crusoe ends up not discovering God but a black man, Friday, who he enslaves.

The notion of the child as an evil, immature and immoral being does not only form the basis of scientific research and social development, it is also, as Ashis Nandy points out in a brilliant paper (7), the foundation of European colonialism and imperialism, as well s the idea of modernity. European colonial writers often described non-western cultures as child-like, needing moral guidance and looking after by the Imperial powers. Thus James Mill, the nineteenth century liberal and utilitarian thinker who provided the intellectual justification for the colonisation of India, saw the relationship between colonisers and their subjects in terms of father and son. His own childhood and how he was treated by his father becomes the main metaphor for the mission of civilizing the Indians. (8). Rudyard Kipling, who also had a devastatingly cruel childhood in England, projected his lost childhood as ‘half savage, half child’. Cecil Rhodes described the South African blacks much more darkly: ‘the native is to be treated as a child and denied franchise. We must adopt the system of despotismin our relations with the barbarous of South Africa’. No doubt the present apartheid regime feels the same. The use of the metaphor of the child legitimises the use of barbaric laws and violence and demands unconditional obedience to imposed authority. What their fathers and teachers did to the colonial administrators in their childhood, on and off the playing fields of Harrow and Eton, they tried to do to the subject people over which they ruled. After all, does not the father enforce certain rules of behaviour in his children and occasionally teat them to put some sense in their heads? In the western society itself, this notion of childhood justified the economic, social and psychological exploitation of working class children. Dickens’ England is an apt place to observe this.
It is the same outlook that produces shocking statistics of child abuse in modern times. The estimated one thousand children who die at the hands of their parents in England, and the half a million who are subjected to physical abuse and over a million who are casualties of sexual harassment and serious neglect in the United Sates are victims of the idea of childhood in western culture. This is not to say that child exploitation is an exclusive invention of the western society; traditional societies too have a great deal to account for. But while in traditional societies, the children are usually a victim of ignorance of absurd dogma, in the modern world, to use Nandy’s words ‘they are victims of meaninglessness, collapse of inter-generational mutuality, unlimited individualism, and a conjugality that see children as intrusions into what is increasingly considered by many to be the only legitimate dyad in the family, namely, the conjugal unit. They are victims of a worldview which sees the child as an inferior, weak but usable version of the fully productive, fully performing, human being who owns the modern world.

All this has produced a fear of childhood. Every adult dreads being childish; the norms of society knocks out any remnant of childhood in adults. And as a corollary, the child is best appreciated when he or she is least genuinely childlike: when he or she can perform incredible feats of gymnastics, sing like the best tenors, play our adult fantasies projected on the suffering minor.

Only when the medieval western notion of childhood has been knocked for six can one expect children to be really treated with dignity and as complete human beings. As total beings, children represent and reflect the contradictions and pathologies of cultures of which they are a part. The way towards working out these contradictions and cure these pathologies is not to fill the minds of children with adult dytopias, or direct and limit their imagination to the social constructions of a consumer and technologically mad society, but by allowing the children ‘to be’, to express their being by involvement, daring, confidence. The next logical step from treating children as lesser, inferior human beings is treating adults in the same manner. The other side of the equation of brutalised and violated childhood is brutalised, violated adulthood. If allowed to live out and express their innocence and goodness, this generation of children may well shape a future world which is a damn site better than that created by the present generation of adults. Judge Dredd will turn in his grave.
As I conclude this brief excursion into the western notion of childhood, I notice that Zaid has been sitting quietly for some time in the chair in front of me. An unlikely behaviour for a hyperactive child, and I cannot help myself asking a silly question, ‘What are you doing?’ ‘Nothing’, he replies as usual. And then, looking rather serious adds: ‘I am sitting and relaxing’.

I laugh. If only I could learn to sit and relax like that. If only I could be a little childish sometimes.


1. Howard and Tracy Kendler, Experimental analysis of inferential behaviour in children in L P Lipsitt and C C Spiker (eds) Advances in Child Development and Behaviour, Vol 3, 1967. Clark Hulls theory is also taken from this volume of the annual journal.
2. Inferential problem solving in younger children, unpublished doctoral thesis, Oxford University, 1977.
3. Fontana, London, 1985.
4. No 223, 28th June 1986.
5. Faber and Faber, London, 1990; First published in 1954.
6. Ibn Tufail, The Improvement of Human Reason Exhibited in the Life of Hai Ebn Yokdhan, Goerg Olms, Zurich, 1983; reprint of original translation by Simon Oakley, 1708; a better French translation by Leon Gauthier was published in Beirut in 1936.
7. Ashis Nandy, (‘Reconstructing Childhood: A Critique of Ideology of Adulthood’ Alternatives 10 (3) 359 376 (Winter 1984/85).
8. See Bruce Mazlish, James and John Mills: Father and Son in the Nineteenth Century, Basic Books, New York, 1975.

Source: Originally published in Afkar: Inquiry 3 (8) 39-44 (1986).

This essay appeared in Inquiry vol3 No 8 39-44 August 1986