Thursday, October 29, 2009

More from Ayn Rand about Childhood

Last month, I wrote a tome of a post about one of the most common Ayn Rand/Objectivist myths that crops up from time to time: the idea that Ayn Rand was hostile toward or discouraged people from having children and enjoying a healthy family life. Believe it or not, I find I have more to say on the subject! Long-winded, that's me.

Actually I don't have as much to say about it so much as I'd like to share with you some quotations from Ayn Rand on the subject. I have generally found that when people misunderstand the things she wrote, it's because they're either missing some relevant context or are simply passing along (sometimes unknowingly) a piece of misinformation they acquired secondhand. When I'm asked a question about what Objectivists or Ayn Rand might say on a certain topic, I think it's best to let Ayn Rand speak for herself.

So today I'll quote a little more from Atlas Shrugged. SPOILER ALERT--no major spoilers ahead, but just so you know, it's possible I might give something away. And hey, if you haven't read it yet, hie thee hither to yon local bookshop and get thee a copy, quick! For extra Atlas Shrugged goodness, don't miss Diana's Explore Atlas Shrugged series on Rationally Selfish Radio. I've listened to the first episode, and some of the second episode, and it's really well-done. Kid-willing, I hope to get caught up this weekend.

One of my favorite details in the novel is her description of the childhood experiences of Francisco d'Anconia, Dagny Taggart, and Eddie Willers. Francisco stayed with the Taggarts for one month every summer, and they all had amazing adventures together. Talk about Free Range Kids! (All quotations from the 35th Anniversary Edition paperback):

"I don't know what sort of motto the d'Anconias have on their family crest," Mrs. Taggart said once, "but I'm sure that Francisco will change it to 'What for?' " It was the first question he asked about any activity proposed to him--and nothing would make him act, if he found no valid answer. He flew through the days of his summer month like a rocket, but if one stopped him in mid-flight, he could always name the purpose of his every random movement. Two things were impossible to him: to stand still or to move aimlessly.

"Let's find out" was the motive he gave to Dagny and Eddie for anything he undertook, or "Let's make it." These were his only forms of enjoyment.

. . .

The three of them set out every morning on adventures of their own kind. Once, an elderly professor of literature, Mrs. Taggart's friend, saw them on top of a pile in a junk yard, dismantling the carcass of an automobile. He stopped, shook his head and said to Francisco, "A young man of your position ought to spend his time in libraries, absorbing the culture of the world." "What do you think I'm doing?" asked Francisco.

There were no factories in the neighborhood, but Francisco taught Dagny and Eddie to steal rides on Taggart trains to distant towns, where they climbed fences into mill yards or hung on window sills, watching machinery as other children watched movies.

. . .

Railroad conductors caught them, once in a while. Then a station-master a hundred miles away would telephone Mrs. Taggart: "We've got three young tramps here who say that they are--" "Yes," Mrs. Taggart would sigh, "they are. Please send them back." (pp. 94-95)

This brief glimpse into the early years of three of the novel's protagonists depicts a childhood of freedom and autonomy. These kids were trusted, loved, motivated by their own desire to explore the world, and free to do so.

As a parent, there's almost no sound more thrilling to me than when one of my kids says "Let's do it!" or "I've got an idea!" or "No thanks, Mom, I want to do this myself. I'm trying to figure something out." When they proudly show off their accomplishments--a drawing or a construction project or a new physical skill--the look of pure joy and pride on their faces is exciting.

And now here's something from the What Not To Do file. In this scene (I'll try not to give too much away), one character meets a tragic end, and Hank Rearden, another of the novel's main protagonists, considers the primary cause of the young man's fate:

[Rearden] felt an anger too intense to identify except as a pressure within him: it was a desire to kill.

The desire was not directed at the unknown thug who had sent a bullet through the boy's body, or at the looting bureaucrats who had hired the thug to do it, but at the boy's teachers who had delivered him, disarmed, to the thug's gun--at the soft, safe assassins of college classrooms who, incompetent to answer the queries of a quest for reason, took pleasure in crippling the young minds entrusted to their care.

Somewhere, he thought, there was this boy's mother, who had trembled with protective concern over his groping steps, while teaching him to walk, who had measured his baby formulas with a jeweler's caution, who had obeyed with a zealot's fervor the latest words of science on his diet and hygiene, protecting his unhardened body from germs--then had sent him to be turned into a tortured neurotic by the men who taught him that he had no mind and must never attempt to think. Had she fed him tainted refuse, he thought, had she mixed poison into his food, it would have been more kind and less fatal.

He thought of all the living species that train their young in the art of survival, the cats who teach their kittens to hunt, the birds who spend such strident effort on teaching their fledglings to fly--yet man, whose tool of survival is the mind, does not merely fail to teach a child to think, but devotes the child's education to the purpose of destroying his brain, of convincing him that thought is futile and evil, before he has started to think.

From the first catch-phrases flung at a child to the last, it is like a series of shocks to freeze his motor, to undercut the power of his consciousness. "Don't ask so many questions, children should be seen and not heard!" -- "Who are you to think? It's so, because I say so!" -- "Don't argue, obey!" -- "Don't try to understand, believe!" -- "Don't rebel, adjust!" -- "Don't stand out, belong!" -- "Don't struggle, compromise!" -- "Your heart is more important than your mind!" -- "Who are you to know? Your parents know best!" -- "Who are you to know? Society knows best!" -- "Who are you to know? The bureaucrats know best!" -- "Who are you to object? All values are relative!" -- "Who are you to want to escape a thug's bullet? That's only a personal prejudice!"

Men would shudder, he thought, if they saw a mother bird plucking the feathers from the wings of her young, then pushing him out of the nest to struggle for survival--yet that was what they did to their children. (pp. 922-923)

Again I ask, are these really the words of someone who was hostile toward children, who was uninterested in how they should be properly raised? She certainly understood how crushing the words "Because I said so!" are to a child, both in spirit and mind. I think that phrase should have no place in the home of children being raised to value their own rationality.

So there you go! More words straight from Ayn Rand that contradict the notion that she viewed families and children as necessarily "soul-killing," an endeavor not worthy of effort. I'm sure I'll find more that I'll need to get out of my system at some point.


Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Something you wrote in this post caught my attention. You said:

"When they proudly show off their accomplishments--a drawing or a construction project or a new physical skill--the look of pure joy and pride on their faces is exciting."

When I was a teacher, this look of wonder at a new discovery and pride in having learned something hard, these looks were the reason that I could get up and go to work everyday even though I was working for a very dysfunctional public school system. Unfortunately, I rarely saw those looks on children's faces past about Grade 2, and I do not recall seeing them at all in high school students. Rather, they sported dull indifference, hopeless resignation or cynicism. And this is why I am no longer in the classroom. Pride in accomplishment especially, was something that was trained out of the children quite early. It was too painful to watch.

Doug Reich said...

Excellent post!

Question on the "because I said so front!"

I have a 3 year old boy and sometimes I believe he just needs to accept that I know what is best for him - especially in a dangerous situation (or at the end of a long day which is a dangerous situation...:))

He now asks why after everything we say or do which is wonderful but after 30 of them, it gets crazy - also, he really is not at a conceptual level where he really grasps my answer although maybe I'm giving him too little credit

Anyway, what is the rule on this one - when is "because I said so" ok if ever and how do you apply it in context of 3 year old versus an older child who can get the explanation

thanks !

Jeff Yoak said...


You addressed your question to Jenn, but as a parent of a 3-year-old (as well as a 1-year-old) I have a couple of thoughts.

One thing that I'm amazed by is how hard it seems to be for parents to respond to these sorts of questions with, "I don't know." When "why?" becomes reflexive or even combative, this stops kids in their tracks and they're impressed by your genuineness. It also allows them similar responses in future cases and allows you more room to be helpful. I'm not suggesting this as tactic. I'm pointing out that sometimes the kid eventually gets to a question you genuinely don't have an answer for, and admitting ignorance to a child and even inviting their thoughts is not only right, but also breaks this pattern.

Another instance of the "why" as repetitive mantra is when it starts to be applied to things that don't have an answer to a question in that form. For instance, you explain that doing such and such is dangerous and you don't want the child to be hurt and are greeted with another, "why?" Answers like, "Because I love you" will be met with more "why?" questions and that leads the conversation in a painful direction. Even if you can handle it, this has stopped being a quest for information and has become a game at best or a challenge at worst.

We try to address that sort of thing by saying something like, "I'm not sure what you mean by 'why' here. Can you explain to me what a reason why would look like here?" At least our toddler isn't brazen enough to try to respond to that with, "why?" His response may take one of several tacks depending on what is going on.

Sometimes he responds by asking for information. This will rarely be a formulation that was covered by "why" in the first place, but we always benevolently answer this query and not point out this discontinuity. The point is not to punish verbally for the annoying "why?" but instead to move the conversation in a positive direction, and that has been accomplished.

Other times, there will be an argument. "Well, I *want* to do the dangerous thing because..." Again, pointing out that "why?" had nothing to do with this is counter-productive. At this point you can talk about how the value can be accomplished more safely, or suggest other values that might be substituted or even decide to allow a risk to be taken if that's appropriate in the case. In any event, the destructive loop is broken.

I guess I'd sum it up by saying that I find it possible to cope with these situations if I always take seriously that he is serious in an attempt to communicate and take it as my role to make that work, while making sure that I don't allow frustration at an annoying behavior to cause my benevolence to slip and make it harder for him through greater linguistic facility.

gypsy said...

Well-selected quotes from Atlas. I enjoyed the post. Kids at 3 understand a great deal; when my kids got wrapped up in "why" questions, we would ask what *they* thought. This was wonderful in that required them to participate in figuring things out at a level they could comprehend. At an early age, we can help kids learn how to think logically, not just be recipients of information.

Doug Reich said...

That is very helpful advice. Thanks very much!


Rosalie said...

Thanks, Doug, for braving the question about ongoing "whys" from young children, and thanks Jeff and Gypsy for your responses!! :o) This is really positive, helpful information.

Rational Jenn said...

Elisheva--I can believe what you wrote, and it's one of the (among many) reasons we are homeschooling. That is something I don't ever want my kids--or any kids--to lose!

Rational Jenn said...

Doug, Jeff, gypsy, and Rosalie--very thoughtful Q&A. Thanks!

I myself "own" a More Info Kid. It can be frustrating, not to mention time-consuming, to fulfill the knowledge appetite of such a kid. It's also quite rewarding.

In addition to the other excellent suggestions, or along the same lines really, we do something called "Why don't we look that up?" And I'll pull out a book (we have many of those DK All About X--rocks, reptiles, etc.--books) or get on the internet. Because I often do not know the answer to some of these questions. It's a chance to show them HOW to go about satisfying this appetite independently. And now that Ryan is reading more independently, this is something he is beginning to do all on his own. And that's good for him AND for me!

In the situation where it's dangerous, where you are really protecting the child, what I do is give the reason--even if the kid doesn't accept it. They don't have to like being pulled away from the gas stove knobs or off of a dangerous precipice. They don't even HAVE to truly understand my reasons.

In those situations, what's important is that they know I do have a logical reason for wanting them to do or stop their behavior, and that I am willing to communicate the reason to them. Why merely say "Don't turn the knobs on the stove because I said so!" ? Why not say "Don't turn those knobs. We only turn those when it's time to cook something. Do you want to help me with that job next time we cook?" Or something like that.

If they are used to Mom and Dad having a rational reason based in experience and knowledge, if they understand that you are not just exercising arbitrary authority, you'll actually earn their respect as a true authority on such matters. Even when they hate what you did or don't agree with/understand the reason.

Daniel said...

Great stuff! Another data point busting this ludicrious myth of Ayn Rand as hostile towards children or family life, can be found in the book reviews she published in her newsletters.

I just finished Beck's How to Raise a Brighter Child, which was recommended in The Objectivist--along with Teaching Montessori in the Home.

Though Rand did not write these, their inclusion in the newsletters shows the importance that Rand placed on this issue. So, not only did she depict childhood as it could be and ought to be, Rand also published reviews in her newsletter on books that show parents how to give their kids the same.

Hannah Eason said...

Hi, Jenn! I learned of your blog from recommendations on a couple different Objectivist sites, and I've very much enjoyed the posts I've read so far. As parent of a two-year-old, some of the issues you discuss are in their sunrise format for me, and I'm grateful for a forum on the topics I so often mull over with boy-scout standards plugging away at my mind.

I've always liked the third of the Atlas Shrugged quotes you included -- it seems to summerize the bemused, permissive-of-curiosity stance a parent would logically have to have been a fundamental hinge in the lives of Dangy, Francisco and Eddie.

Thanks for the helpful posts, and I look forward to reading more.