Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 252 | Julio 2002



The "Sun-Child": Everyone’s Responsibility

While most children in the South have virtually no rights, many in the North—and a privileged few in the South—enjoy far too many prerogatives. The author of this article, a European psychotherapist, contemplates the damage this is doing to both them and society, while acknowledging the values of recognizing their genuine rights.

Claude Piron

An oft-heard lament in western societies is that today’s young people are individualistic and violent, that they lack any deep convictions or motivations and are obsessed with appearances, with appearing to be rather than being. This phenomenon can be explained in part by the ambivalent place children hold in these societies. We place them at the very center of our universe, but at the same time, often give them no chance to confront their egocentric impulses. Without failing to emphasize the positive aspects of the new place held by today’s children, we need to look deeper into the contradictory reality of what we might call the "sun-child."

From irrelevant beings to the very center

Until the 20th century, children and adolescents barely existed as such. They were considered adults in progress, beings of an inferior status—like women or workers—with no particular status of their own. The idea that children are important in their own right was scarcely if ever mentioned. Pedagogically, they were considered empty vessels in need of filling, and the first magazines aimed at children, which appeared at the end of the 19th century, were basically aimed at giving them moralistic advice. An adult man of good social position occupied the center of the entire social cell. This man was the sun. Woman, workers, domestic employees and children were all planets that revolved around him.

In a complete about-face, western societies have now enthroned children at the center of the system, putting them in the sun’s place. Their parents bow down before them, like the moon and stars before the sun in Joseph’s biblical dream. Businesses and stores court them. Luxury mail-order catalogs give as much space to children as to adults. And banks encourage them to open accounts as soon as they reach adolescence so they can manage their own money.

One day, when I was a boy and was getting on a streetcar, a firm hand took my arm to stop me. A masculine voice, cordial but full of authority, accompanied the gesture: "Let the ladies on first." The older man who had put me in my place was a stranger, but he smiled at me with a look full of affection. I didn’t feel offended, didn’t take it as a humiliating admonition but rather as a useful piece of information to guide my future conduct. And although I was a little ashamed, my overriding feeling was that the man was paying attention to me, had recognized me. What a contrast with another attitude I recently witnessed on a bus. A woman of around 40 got on with a visibly healthy girl of 10. A 70-year-old woman followed them. There was only one free seat on the bus. The mother motioned to her daughter to sit down and the girl did so without a moment’s hesitation. The mother remained standing, as did the old woman. Would anyone think that the message this mother is giving her daughter, repeated so many times a day, helps build a healthy society?

Childish egocentrism
requires authority and firmness

Respectful behavior towards older people, which we find in most traditional societies, is a sign of affective maturity. A society functions better and offers a more agreeable vital framework when a majority of its members have attained this maturity. It means that they have overcome childish egocentrism, the starting point of our world vision. Small children are centers of their perception. They perceive themselves as the point at which everything they see, feel and hear converges. If they put their hands over their eyes and see no one, they think no one can see them. Since they don’t understand that every person is different and occupies a different point in space, they project their situation on the whole of the outside world. Three-year-old children who know how to tell right from left can’t understand that for someone facing them, right and left are inverted.

Understanding everything in function of oneself is, at the start of life, normal behavior. In a traditional society, however, it doesn’t take long for these initially egocentric children to understand that they don’t occupy a central place, the place of the sun. But they also realize very quickly that the secondary place assigned to them is nothing to fear: they receive sufficiently numerous signs of love to reassure them that not being in the center does not mean being abandoned.

For several decades now, the opposite has been happening in western societies. Children have been placed right in the center by the whole of society, and have come to assume that they are heir to royal prerogatives. Many parents have been able to ignore this extremely influential trend and have managed to keep their children from feeling like they are the center of the universe. But far more children are surrounded by adults who have lost their own bearings, who are exhausted by stressful jobs and confused about their responsibilities as educators in a world full of contradictory advice. These children do not get the signs of affection they need, nor the firm but loving authority that allows them to feel secure inside. Robbed of the affection and the firmness to which they have an authentic right, they feel compelled to abusively exercise the prerogatives conferred upon them by having been placed in the position of kings and queens of the universe.

I was at someone’s house for dinner and when it was time for the appetizer, my host ask her nine-year-old son, "John, what would you like to drink?" "An aperitif," the boy replied. And the mother served him one. Seeing my surprise, she explained to me with a radiant smile, "He just loves it!" In a shoe store one day, I saw a father trying to resist the demands of his son, who had his eyes set on the most expensive pair of Nikes in the shop. The father explained to the boy that he didn’t have much money, that he was out of work, that his mother’s job was unsure. But the boy paid no attention. The fact that his father’s words described a situation that he should take into account didn’t matter a bit. "Those are the ones I want," he insisted in the tone of a Sun King saying, "I am the state." The father sighed, picked up the shoes and paid for them.

Neither all privileges nor all responsibilities

Some time ago, Freud explained that maturity appears when we move from the pleasure principle to the reality principle. But how hard it is to resist the very powerful forces in our society that conspire to keep young people stuck in the pleasure principle. And if they let themselves be carried away by this tendency, they will never be able to understand their true place in the world. They will feel that their desires are rights and resist stepping out of the center, admitting that they are not the sun.

In many families, the planets that revolve around these little suns are unaware of young people’s essential needs. And although these adults conscientiously attend to their children’s bodily health, their intellectual education, the satisfaction of their basic needs, they fail to take into account their need to be put in their place—which is neither a place where they have all the privileges, nor a place where they have no rights. Nor is it a place where they must assume all responsibilities alone. Unfortunately, one of the paradoxes of the solar position is that children are very often made responsible for managing their own lives at an age when they do not yet have the necessary maturity.

Many parents, unable to see what is essential, try to cover up this "lack" by overwhelming the child with activities. How many six- or seven-year-old children are subjected to a wild race, going from school to language classes to dance classes, music classes, yoga and swimming, robbed of the time to dream or to play with a stick and some stones, with toys they themselves invent or fabricate? How many children are overwhelmed by a plethora of explanations and information that surpass their intelligence, and in the end only serve to help them transform their whims into reality, without ever having to run up against immobile barriers—the only ones that form and strengthen our will? Thus, these young kings and queens experience their central position as a total absence of limits, in which they are burdened with a huge amount of information and an enormous frustration.

We are raising frustrated adolescents

In families dragged along by this dominant trend, adolescence, which is a difficult time of life in the best of circumstances, exacerbates the frustration yet reinforces the conviction of invulnerability, a quite common feeling among people who see themselves as Sun-kings. When they have been raised like this, should we be surprised that a young Australian set a forest on fire because he felt like it, that young Americans and Europeans shoot their classmates and teachers to experience new emotions, that a young Frenchman extorted and abused smaller children? Should we be surprised that young people show no sense of responsibility in their sexual behavior or the way they drive a motorcycle or car, since responsibility requires going beyond egocentrism, a step still pending in their lives?
To understand what is happening, adolescents conclude that adults reproach them for being who they are and acting as they do. And they take any criticism as profoundly unjust. And they are somewhat right: they are victims. Without being able to explain it, because they experience all of this as though submerged in a dense, confused fog, young people feel that they have never had what they needed. They needed help in moving from egocentrism to an acceptance of their true place in the world. They needed to be taught the art of assuming their own frustrations. They needed guidance from a hand that is both affectionate and firm, which in a climate of mutual respect and love does not tolerate transgressing the defined limits. They needed silence and space in which to deploy their creativity, but instead were flooded with toys and satiated with TV shows that left no room for their creative imaginations. They needed parents who were close to them educating them, but their parents chose the easy path and entrusted this extremely important task to professional educators.

To be or to have, to dream or to consume

Crushed by publicity that exploits their lack of defenses, in which the predominant message is "Ask for this and you shall be happy," children live in a society at the service of money. Commercial ads destroy what is marvelous in the same way that imposed images destroy the spontaneous imaginings born from attentive listening. This generation’s experiences are radically different from those of their parents. Years ago, the elephant Babar led children into a fantasy world, an imagined, stimulating, comforting universe. This world activated the right side of their brains. Later came the Babar line of perfumes, Babar socks, Babar tee shirts, which snatched the friendly elephant from the world of dreams and fantasies to place it in the calculating left side of the brain. And the marvel disappeared.

The success of the Harry Potter books can be explained as a form of compensation in light of such terrible frustrations. But Mammon, the god of money, similarly lost no time in jumping on this "redeeming wizard." After the books came the film, the imposed image that prevents dreams, followed by an interminable heap of sellable objects and accessories with Harry Potter’s image, thus assuring that the mythical and fantastical would be devoured by daily insignificance. What a sad society we live in that, in a terrible sterilizing operation, replaces children amazed by the marvelous with sun-children consumers.

Another great danger lurks behind all this. When one cannot be, one seeks to have. Child abusers seek the childhood they never had. And when they cannot find it at the level of being, they want to possess it. In an effort to reencounter their early years, they trap children, rob them of their childhood, causing them serious psychological damage that is very had to repair. By sexually abusing children, abusers snatch them out of their true place in the world, converting children, who are subjects, into objects.

We are all sure of our innocence

Must we admit that human society works in the same binary mode as the smallest children, whose minds can manage nothing but opposed concepts with two symmetrical extremes and constantly move in pendulum motions from one extreme to the other? Children have gone quite recently from being nothing to being in the very center, as we have been unable to give them their just place, someplace between these two extremes.

The worst thing about the current situation is that individual interests have hidden behind this Copernican revolution, and that these mercantile interests—the forces of money—determine the atmosphere of our society. Today, the people with the capacity and means to decisively influence mass culture are the ones that have the most money. Focusing on their own interests, they are unconcerned with the consequences their choices have on the whole of society. If we were to tell the people who produce and broadcast violent cartoon programs from morning to night or organize child fashion shows that they are creating disenchantment and frustration in the new generation, they would look at us as though we were crazy or, at the very least, exaggerating demagogues. We are each, individually, sure of our own innocence. Nevertheless, the choices made by this set of "innocents" create a climate with perverse effects. The United States, where the child population constitutes an enormous market, is a country plagued by terrible dramas caused by the arrival on the scene of the sun-child.

Achievements in this Copernican revolution

These thoughts reflect only one side of the coin. The fact that children have emerged from the shadow in which society used to hide them, that society has become interested in them, listens to them, takes them into account, is a positive change of enormous import for humanity. The school psychologists children can now turn to when they have a problem, the telephone numbers so many young people can call to talk anonymously with a friendly voice about their troubles, knowing they will be listened to without being judged—these represent undeniable progress. All that has been done in the field of pedagogy to encourage sensorial development, to better understand how children experience the things adults say and do, and to diagnose problems faced by children and young people that went largely unperceived in the past, are real triumphs. They are extremely valuable in ensuring a better life for future generations.

The benefits derived from the new place children have attained in our society are truly innumerable. Think of the work of clowns, ambassadors of laughter, in children’s hospitals; the new training in self-hypnosis to alleviate the pain of sick children who cannot be relieved by medications; the rediscovery of the value of storytellers, who revive the magic of the oral tradition; the free shows for children, the many great works of literature that have been adapted to the language and development of children and adolescents; the efforts being made in so many schools to teach children to listen to each other and thus discover the art of democracy in practice and in daily life. A great deal of concrete progress has been made, whose consequences should encourage us. It is also encouraging to see the large number of parents who understand more than before what their children need and make efforts to provide them with an education worthy of that name.

Optimistic or pessimistic?

Although all of these positive changes have significantly improved our society, they do not form its most visible face. What percentage do all these positive elements represent in the whole of social reality? Do they provide a sufficient counterweight to the perverse effects we see in the most visible face of our society? This is very hard to measure. Pessimists confuse all of society with its most visible face. Optimists think that the positive changes that make little noise are much more important, and that the families where children benefit from a healthy education, which leads to affective maturation, are much more numerous than one might think based on a superficial glance.

The human brain has been programmed over millions of years of evolution to identify what doesn’t work, what’s no good, so it can implement the necessary corrective measures and changes to ensure that things work well. For this reason, it naturally focuses on the negative, seeing whatever functions well as something that has been acquired and is permanent, that can be taken for granted. It is impossible to get pessimists and optimists to agree. What we can do is hope. And we can put this hope into action by working, each in our own little space in the world, to encourage increased awareness among people we know so we can address the most harmful tendencies of current society. Encouraging egocentrism, on the other hand, is suicide.

This article was originally published in the Swiss Jesuit journal Choisir, March 2002. Translated and edited by envío.

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