Idealism. Not philosophical idealism, but children's idealism. Why does it leave? Why does it stay?

A bumper-sticker remark I liked: "I Don't Should On Myself." Mispronounce "should" and it sounds like "shit".

I was 45-ish before I read in a book on child development that at twelve years youthful idealism peaks and goes into a slow decline during the teens. Mine did not decline and for decades longer I often spoke in terms of "People should do A" and "People should not do B." When they didn't comply, deep disappointment followed.

I grew up in an authoritarian (= German) family and my dad put his kids into authoritarian (= Catholic) schools. I gained a bit of control in my environment with sentences like "People must do C" and "People cannot do D." They often worked, until in a political campaign people ignored them. It was like they hadn't heard my attempt at control.

I began to see how authoritarian rule differed from totalitarian rule after Reagan's UN delegate Jeanne Kirkpatrick said that for purposes of foreign aid, US policy distinguished one from the other only when one ruler was pro-communist and another was anti-communist. With more reading, I came to see totalitarian rule enforced with commands like "You shall do E" and "You shall not do F", with violence or imprisonment helping people decide to comply.

Summarizing:

1) totalitarian: "You shall/shall not...." backed up by mystical beliefs (think Naziism) and violence or imprisonment.

2) authoritarian: "You must/cannot...." backed up with more words and glowering facial expressions.

3) idealism: "You should / should not...." backed up perhaps with disappointed looks and/or guilt-tripping.

4) democracy: "Let's bargain and come to an agreement."

My personal experience is that for people who'd grown up in violent or abusive homes, idealism does not decline during the teen years but remains for perhaps decades.

What's your take on this issue?

Tags: control, discipline, domination, government, politics, power

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Replies to This Discussion

I like your intellectual description of a scale of conformity/coercion. I might add communalism and libertarianism extend the scale further (left and/or in other directions).

I grew up non-abused, but I still carry a fair amount of idealism, even in my sixth decade of life.  If there's a progression of personal maturity and understanding, I'm guessing it's from fantasy to practicality. There's still conceptual overlap of normative vs empirical (i.e. what we think "should be" vs what "is") in social sciences and cultural anthropology.

Conversion from child idealism to adulthood could just be a matter of practicality. In a civilized society, we progress from belief in Santa Claus to interest in a more permanent role and making a living. In a tribal society, our world view can be totally restricted to our tribal ways of day-to-day survival, with little time for intellectual considerations and discourse of what "may" be. So, in that (cultural, evolutionary) sense, we humans aren't optimized for intellectual abilities.

Although play may just seem like spare time fun, it's actually an essential behavior for learning one's personal capabilities, and how to interact with the immediate, physical world. Growing and adapting to physical reality requires no intellectualization, but benefits from imagination, fantasy, and just experimental behavior and sometimes acting out to extremes, which at first have low cost (e.g. cowboys and indians without real weapons). Modern children know little about the real world, except for their personal feelings and face-to-face interactions, what they see in cartoons or on TV, and what their household family and (constricted) environment imparts to them.

Children's idealism gets replaced with practicality, but can remain in different forms because it's fun... assuming one can still afford to take time out for it. I can't speak for how this works in an abused home, except to guess that the abuse significantly robs children of opportunity to enjoy playful, growing experiences, and confident, practical interaction with their "real" world, whatever it happens to be, and becomes.

Thanks, Pope OoO. you've given me something to think on.

Yes, communalism belongs on the scale. Agreement on an action or policy would require more than a simple majority, perhaps a consensus.

Libertarianism? "If men were angels...", which today we can say as "If none of us were sociopaths...", we would require few rules.

The gradual decline of idealism after twelve? I agree that it's a growth of maturity and understanding from fantasy to practicality. Upon reading of idealism's peaking at twelve, I started asking myself why mine hadn't gradually declined. When the shock came, a kind of pendulum swung to cynicism. In many repeated swings, the pendulum slowed. I still have some idealism and cynicism; part in jest I now say that on my travels from one to the other I try to spend some time at realism.

The normative vs empirical (what "should be" vs what "is") became real for me when, after several years in hardball politics, I set out to learn "the language" of democracy. I found it in a history of the US Congress. When those guys break their rules, they don't say "You should..." to each other. They say "X happened; in response the Speaker or the House did Y."

More later.

What a great and timely discussion. Last night, I attended a performance of Ugandan children which was part of a Christian based Program that lifts them out of some of the most dire situations known to man.

Heavily involved in indoctrination, but successful in giving the children new lives which they desperately need.

WWW.watoto.com describes it.

I'm going to work now, but will further comment later.

So concerning the OP, perhaps there is a 5) Intellectual Commerce: We have an agenda that includes x,y, and z, Z being the Zombie Christ. Join with us to get the benefits. 

I agree with you that children under the age of 12 have a sense of the world that is full of should, and come to realism through various means and interactions as they grow into adult lives. 

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