Recently I rebuked my nine-year-old daughter for some especially obnoxious back talk. "It's a free country," she retorted with that know-it-all sneer second nature to her generation. Her words, familiar ammunition in living-room wars for decades now, point to one of the cultural contradictions of American childhood. In order to become individuals capable of self-determination—capable of freedom—we need years of surveillance, orders, and control. It's a free country, maybe, but it takes a heavily regulated living room.
For it's in the living room that children undergo what sociologist Norbert Elias calls the "civilizing process." During their early years children must be taught to make a habit of the self-restraint required for life in society, to control and modify their raw impulses and drives. Many Americans, secure in their own successful completion of this process, have come to take basic moral education for granted or to assume our liberated age can go easy on it. But in a free, temptation-filled society, the civilizing process needs to be more demanding than ever; individuals who will grow up to live in coed dorms or military barracks, for instance, must develop a massive and reliable system of inner controls. In truth, every society must be able to inculcate the young with dependable controls. "Every scheme of ethics demands that in important respects we practice self-restraint," political theorist Clifford Orwin has written. "We all first come to know morality, and for the most part continue to know it, as denial." Or as sociologist Philip Rieff puts it, "The moral life begins with renunciation."
Every culture goes about the civilizing process in its own way in order to shape citizens fitted to its requirements: as Plato understood, child rearing is a form of politics. In the early days of the republic, Americans overthrew the harsh Calvinist discipline founded on fear and absolute obedience to introduce a new child rearing that appealed to children's affections and emerging reason. Instead of breaking a child's will, Americans began gently shaping his personality. They recognized, as did foreign visitors who commented on this new democratic American family, that the young democracy required a new man, independent and self-governing.
What they didn't recognize was how laden their new mode of child rearing was with paradox and contradiction. Parents had simultaneously to teach the habits of restraint and freedom. They had to suppress the child's egotism while cultivating his personal ambition, to instill respect for authority while nurturing critical independence, to teach convention while celebrating ingenuity, to encourage a loving commitment toward family and tradition while promoting flexibility and autonomy. If juggling the conflicting demands of autonomy and self-control seemed a difficult acrobatic performance, it nevertheless worked. Americans were different: flexible, creative, entrepreneurial, improvisational, but held in check by the invisible cords of cultural prohibitions.
Today, though, to read the recommendations of mainstream American child experts is to conclude that this delicate balance has collapsed. Our era's equation is all autonomy, with no restraint. As James Q. Wilson has observed, in a number of recent works on moral development, the subject of self-control is entirely absent. And why should it be otherwise? The experts' child is free of dark urges. His heart is full of compassion, his head packed with moral wisdom. Adults do not need to shape him; he is so clearheaded and sensible as to be capable almost of raising himself. In fact, adult efforts at "civilizin'," as Huck Finn called it, endanger this child, distorting his unique personality and his fundamental goodness. That's the myth, at any rate: call it the American Child Pastoral. The reality, with today's soaring rates of child crime, depression, and disaffection, suggests that the current crop of child-rearing experts have got it wrong.
They go wrong by unwittingly proving the rule well known to politicians and other malefactors: half-truths can be as misleading as outright lies. Dr. Benjamin Spock, whose Baby and Child Care has sold at rates second only to the Bible, is a prime case in point. He begins by defining children as social creatures, an observation few would dispute. But this clear truth dissolves into an Enlightenment fairy tale; the child Spock describes is also sensible, moderate, self-regulating, and rational, the opposite of the mysteriously primitive, anarchic, sleep-destroying creature most parents know and love. "Your baby is born to be a reasonable, friendly human being," he begins, unexceptionably enough. "Most babies have a natural tendency to establish a regular pattern of feeding and sleeping," he continues, more fancifully; they "just naturally tend . . . to fit into the family's schedule." You would never know from Spock that most babies naturally do to a family's schedule, not to mention its house, what Caligula did to Rome. Nor would you learn that rationality and regular habits do not occur spontaneously but come about largely through the energetic, day-in, day-out efforts of parents.
No, by nature Spock's child is more temperate than any philosopher. When it comes to weaning, the doctor suggests, "Take it easy and follow your baby's lead"; most babies, he says, willingly give up their pacifiers by three or four months—a fact my neighbor would be surprised to hear, having just gone cold turkey with her two-year-old, an experience that reminded her of her worst days as a volunteer at a drug rehab center. Feeding? No problem. Go ahead and feed her if you think she is hungry, he advises: "If you are mistaken, she'll merely refuse to take much."
Faith in children's natural good judgment appears in the most unlikely times and places. During toilet training, for instance: "The most that parents can do is guide them a little," Spock assures readers. "If a mother will realize that the baby will mostly `train' himself," he writes, endorsing the methods of another famed pediatrician and author of top-selling advice books, T. Berry Brazelton, "children should become trained of their own free will—no coercion at all." Another popular work, What to Expect: The Toddler Years, responds to the question, "When is it time to begin?" with what has become conventional wisdom: "Look no further than your toddler for the answer. Only your child can tell you."
The experts can't ignore those occasions when children exhibit behavior that might seem a little, well . . . contrary. But don't be fooled; this is not what it seems, writes Penelope Leach, a British psychologist with a huge following in the United States—Your Baby and Child alone has sold well over a million and a half copies. Leach allows that a two-year-old might "rush around the room, wild and screaming, . . . fling himself on the floor, writhing, kicking, and screaming as if he were fighting with demons. He may scream and scream until he makes himself sick. He may scream and turn blue in the face."
This Neanderthal display might turn parents pale in the face, but to Leach this is the wrong response. They should be proud. "Your toddler is rapidly developing a sense of being a separate, independent person with personal rights, preferences, and ploys," she writes. "His `willfulness' is a sign that he is growing up and that he feels secure enough at present to try to manage things for himself." "Open negativism toward his parents is a toddler's way of expressing his need for independence," Brazelton writes in Toddlers and Parents in nearly identical words. "With his `no' he establishes himself as separate from his parents. Every time he says `no' or acts out a negative response to a demand from those around him, he is learning about himself as a separate individual."
This spin on the temper tantrum transmutes the young child—still only at the early stages of the civilizing process, when raw impulses are under only intermittent control—into a pint-sized Minuteman, just looking after his independence and rights. This is an incomparable act of revisionism; the little dictator has been mythologized into a heroic revolutionary, the Declaration of Independence in hand.
True, no one suggests indulging the tantrum. Experts judiciously recommend a wait-out-the-storm response, nicely balancing the tension between suppressing the child's egotism and accepting his self-assertion. But a dangerous note of admiration creeps in. "Toddlers who have a lot of tantrums," Leach assures us, "are usually lively children who may be highly intelligent. They know what they want to do; they want to do a great many things, and they mind a great deal when someone or something prevents them."
From a less-known but similarly optimistic work, The Emotional Life of the Toddler, parents learn that the tantrum is a "wonderfully eloquent if seldom appreciated expression of the toddler's inner experience," whose underlying theme is, "No, I am not your clone, and I will not relinquish my sense of myself to do what you want me to do and be who you want me to be." Who could resist admiring the clear-eyed self-confidence of such a rebel?
Ignoring the reality of the temper tantrum in this fashion does not reflect an isolated lapse in psychological judgment. The truth is, much as you might read about antisocial behavior in the newspaper, it seldom makes an appearance in the literature of child psychology. The experts are in denial. Yes, they occasionally give us a glimpse of aggression or envy, but these do not appear as the stubborn urges that throughout human history have necessitated moral codes and laws (not to mention police). Rather, they are "stages," that is, passing moods to be passively endured instead of actively tamed. Historian Peter Stearns nicely captures this evasion when he points out that while Victorian and early twentieth-century child-rearing books addressed children's cruelty toward animals, more recent manuals tend to fret over their fear of them.
If not aggression and appetite, what impulses are part of the child's natural endowment, according to modern experts? Their most usual answer: empathy. The naturalness of empathy, an old philosophical notion popularized by the eighteenth-century Earl of Shaftesbury, is an idea worth taking seriously. Academic experts, in particular, correctly point to the many examples of what appears to be the spontaneous empathy of children familiar to parents: the 18-month-old who brings his mother to comfort a crying playmate, the three-year-old whose eyes fill with tears at the sight of an injured dog. But our pastoralists turn a grain of truth into a universe of wishful thinking. They go much further than concluding that human beings are naturally empathic in the way that they are, say, naturally fearful or naturally curious. They see empathy as the principal engine of moral life. This overestimation is no mere academic error. For by overstating the naturalness and power of empathy, they shift the foundation of morality away from self-control and toward self-expression.
According to a central strand of current thinking, empathy is such a basic human instinct that it makes its first appearance in the hospital nursery along with the sucking and startle reflexes. When newborns fuss at the sound of another baby's cry, according to William Damon, a professor at Brown University and author of The Moral Child: Nurturing Children's Natural Moral Growth, they are demonstrating the "spontaneous tendency to identify with another's discomfort. . . . Here we see, in the primitive world of the crib, one human sharing another's burdens." For the older child, empathy is automatic or "largely involuntary if one pays attention to the victim," according to Martin Hoffman, a professor at New York University and one of the foremost experts in the field of moral development. The parents' role is simply to draw the child's attention to the pain of others. When they do so, the child experiences guilt, which Hoffman calls "empathic distress." The older children grow, the more cognitive sophistication they can bring to their understanding of others' pain, and the less they need adults to point out others' suffering. According to Hoffman, this natural moral development explains the tendency of adolescents to identify with the plight of distant, oppressed peoples.
Questions leap to the mind of any parent. If empathy is so powerful, why do well-socialized children feel so little of it when it comes to the wailing sister whose doll they have just beheaded? And why are well-nurtured teenagers so lacking in this natural feeling when it comes to the suffering that their flagrant rudeness causes their parents? One would assume that we would extend empathy most readily to those we love, yet the truth known to all experienced in family life is often otherwise. Empathy theorists have nothing to say about psychic conflict, ambivalence, or the child's taste for cruelty (unless it is caused by profound neglect or abuse); they have rejected the universal model of morality as self-restraint. In their view, children do good because they have no strong desire to do anything else.
To their credit, empathy theorists have not shied away from talking about guilt, a subject many academic psychologists have shunned in recent decades. Indeed, the fact that today's experts give the impulse credit at all appears to mark an important cultural shift. For many decades psychologists have yearned to banish guilt as an exacting, soul-killing, almost Victorian imposition of duty and sexual repression. Though for Freud guilt was so central to good behavior that it had its own throne in the superego, from where it pronounced sentence over all thoughts and deeds, by mid-century psychologists began to attack this traditionally understood mechanism of self-restraint. It was a source of neurosis, they argued, of pleasure-denying inhibition and low self-confidence. Fear, self-contempt, anxiety: these were not emotions suitable to a newly affluent, pleasure-seeking age, and guilt fell into disrepute among the learned.
In order for guilt to be revived as a useful emotion, as is happening among some academics today, it had to undergo a stylish makeover from its prim past. Distinguished from both Freud's neurosis factory and the more generalized old-fashioned call of duty, it has been resurrected as, in Hoffman's words, "a true interpersonal guilt—the bad feeling one has about oneself because one is aware of harming someone." In this benign retelling of its origins, guilt is drained of hot, red-faced shame, and the guilty individual is transformed from the hero of a Greek tragedy to the heroine of a sentimental novel. Now doing right requires no self-denial; when we do good we are merely expressing ourselves. Closely allied with sympathy and imagination, the child's guilt (the result of projecting himself into the painful experience of another) confirms not his immoral longings but his noble and fine nature.
Newborns whose screams offer proof of human compassion, toddlers whose tantrums are demands for self-determination, schoolchildren whose guilty looks are evidence of natural empathy: it is easy enough to criticize the benign optimism of the American Child Pastoral. But surveys suggest that American parents go along with at least the general tenor of these ideas. According to researchers Sigurdur Gretarsson and Donna Gelfand, they tend to see friendliness and generosity as innate to their children's disposition; undesirable behavior like rudeness or irritability, on the other hand, they view as "transitory and extrinsically caused."
Worse, the myth of the American Child Pastoral hints to parents that moral instruction can actually harm their children. For behind the myth lies a powerful set of assumptions about personal identity shared by many Americans: each individual possesses a unique and worthy inner core, an essential "authentic" identity that must have ample opportunity to express its being. This idea of an authentic self goes much further than more traditional forms of individualism, which celebrate self-determination of beliefs, opinions, and life choices. It insists on a far more expansive expressive freedom: I must be allowed to speak out or act not because I must discover for myself what's true or right but because it expresses my feelings, the "real" me. Self-restraint—that is, the civilizing process itself—runs the risk of inhibiting, or "disrespecting," this authentic self.
This exaggerated respect for the authentic self places our experts in a bind when it comes to advice about how to teach manners. Children everywhere learn manners very early in their development, for manners offer the particular habitual forms of behavior that promote harmonious social life. But American experts are grudging, almost tongue-tied, on this subject. After all, manners often require individuals to restrain their personal inclinations; they are necessarily formulaic and often insincere—the very opposite of true expressions of feeling. Spock tries to bypass the problem this poses for the authentic self by proffering the following sunny advice: "Teaching children to say `Please' or `Thank you' is really not the first step. The most important thing is to have them like people." Note the good doctor's serious misdiagnosis. The purpose of saying please and thank you is not, in fact, to confirm our friendly feelings; it is to acknowledge the efforts others make on our behalf in a ritualized form, precisely so that we do not depend on the vagaries of feeling.
Spock completely recasts the goal of manners from reining in egotism to venting it. To him, far more important than how children behave is what they are. In a similar vein, the authors of What to Expect: The Toddler Years warn us, "Children who are nagged about their manners or are punished for not saying `thank you' or for not using a fork . . . won't feel positive about manners and are likely to ignore them completely whenever they are out from under the eye of the enforcing parent." At any rate, not to worry. According to Spock, "Good manners come naturally"—thus making the reader suspect that the world's premier pediatrician has never, ever spent a day with a child.
So our experts transform parents from authorities who teach—sometimes sternly—the renunciations and manners that make social life possible into facilitators, cheerfully escorting the child's own unique self into maturity. At its most extreme, authenticity makes parental authority entirely unnecessary. "I never use the expression `motivate a child,'" asserts one expert in a "Parent and Child" column in the New York Times. "All we can do is influence how they motivate themselves." In the same spirit, Penelope Leach writes, "There is no virtue in facing children with absolute `dos' and `don'ts,'" adding, with no comprehension of her illogic, "Rules are very useful in keeping a small child safe. But they really don't play much part in teaching him how to behave." Leach, who likes to put the word discipline in quotation marks, sees every parent as a potential martinet: "A gradual and gentle exposing of the child to the results of his own ill-advised actions is the only ultimate sanction you need. Any other kind of punishment is revenge and power-mongering." The authors of another aptly titled advice book, Your Child Is Smarter Than You Think, show a similar abhorrence of parental authority: "Simply telling your child not to do something—`Don't do that'—often said in an understandably exasperated tone of voice, is the least effective way of helping your child learn and understand self-control. It's an overt power play."
True, a suspicion of authority is central to the American outlook. And certainly, many of our experts' suggestions—such as giving children reasons for rules or allowing small negotiations over them—when done in moderation with older children are fine means of promoting independent minds capable of carrying on that tradition. But what was once a healthy wariness about raw power has hardened into a debilitating taboo familiar to many middle-class American parents. Experts reveal it in the way they advise parents, particularly those with toddlers, to engage in almost any charade to hide the fact that they are in charge: bargaining, just-a-few-minutes-more negotiating, bribing. Leach tells parents of toddlers that they will need not only patience and good humor but "talent as an actor too. Are you in a hurry to get home? If you swoop the toddler into his stroller when he wanted to walk, all hell will break loose. Act as if you had all the time in the world, offer to be a horse and pull him home, and you will get there as fast as your legs will take the two of you." If your child refuses to get out of the stroller, counsel the authors of What to Expect, "Suggest, perhaps, that the dog get in the stroller or pretend to get in it yourself. . . . Give orders pretending you're a dog or a lion, Big Bird, Mickey Mouse." Anything but a parent.
A new crop of child-rearing books, supposedly more realistic about children's need for unambiguous guidance, does more to reveal the powerful hold of the American Child Pastoral than to offer a new vision. Robert Coles's latest, best-selling The Moral Intelligence of Children, for instance, asserts that parents and teachers are not offering enough moral instruction. But this claim is at odds with his real conclusions, as revealed in his title: that children are naturally moral—no, better than that, "morally intelligent." Coles ponders children's observations as if they were the pearls of Zen masters. He evokes "the stillness of bodies, the rapt attention," and the children's "moral vitality" during his classroom discussions with them. A treasured anecdote, repeated in several interviews, demonstrates the wisdom of his injured nine-year-old son, who—imagine the empathy!—tells his dad to slow down while racing to the hospital because he might cause an accident. "My son had become my moral instructor," Coles marvels.
This ambivalence—between advocating a strong role for parents in shaping children and trusting overmuch in children's innate gifts—runs throughout American advice literature. On the one hand, experts dislike uncivil behavior and offer some useful advice about managing children. Coles and Brazelton, for instance, both counsel that responding to every infant demand runs the risk of turning them into tyrants. But by getting all misty about children's natural morality, independence, and authenticity, they undermine their point.
Their solution to this ambivalence is to reduce discipline to "setting limits." They ignore the important distinction between setting limits and defining moral norms. Parents setting limits are only placing boundaries on the child's self-expression. Parents defining moral norms—both negative norms of what you don't do and positive ones of what you should do—are teaching right and wrong. They are passing on a rich inheritance of principles and rituals that the child does not possess by nature and can only acquire from his culture, primarily through the teachings of his parents.
Experts have little advice to offer parents about this positive side of the task of raising children. They cannot imagine how adults induct children into the man-made world of morals and manners. In their mythology, our wunderkinder construct their own moral identity with a minimum of parental or social interference. Instead of developing a superego to represent society's interdictions in the mind, these kids need only empathy and its sister, guilt, both of them natural parts of the self. They do not need to learn the expectations of others and the forms for satisfying them; they need to learn only themselves. And so, in the guise of science, experts unwittingly advance a radical individualism. Rather than a recipe for a democratic personality that delicately balances personal ambition and public obligation, they have concocted a formula for egotists inept at forming attachments or seeing themselves as part of a larger whole. This is precisely the sort of egotism that Tocqueville viewed as latent in American life, an egotism that "saps the virtues of public life" and that produces "people . . . far too much disposed to think exclusively of their own interests, to become self-seekers practicing a narrow individualism and caring nothing for the public good."
The best illustration of this failure of moral understanding can be found in the works of our two most important theorists of moral development, Lawrence Kohlberg and Carol Gilligan, whose distrust of moral authority—parental or otherwise—knows no bounds. Kohlberg, a professor of psychology at Harvard until his death in 1987 and a touchstone thinker for child developmentalists for over 20 years, believed that moral development progresses through six stages. In the lower stages, common to all children, moral reasoning is based on authority and convention. At the higher stages, the individual reasons not according to local and subjective concerns but by appealing to abstract principles. For instance, my daughter was at the lowly stage two when someone asked her at age five why she shouldn't take a piece of candy from the corner store, and she answered, "Because I might get into trouble." Unlike the older stage-five or -six adolescent, who can argue from more general principles of fairness, her naive mind could conceive of right and wrong only through their personification in authority.
Kohlberg's claim that good behavior is a result of mature reasoning never found much proof in the real world; one study of incarcerated juveniles, for instance, found that these malefactors could reason abstractly quite as well as a control group of their law-abiding peers. But his theory had the virtue of confirming several bedrock principles of the American Child Pastoral. For one thing, the Kohlbergian child does not appear to have any unruly impulses to control. Further, Kohlberg was not in the least interested in the way morality might reveal itself in particular forms of manners, rules of etiquette, or dos and don'ts. And last, adults have only a walk-on role in shaping children's moral life. As he wrote in the essay "The Young Child As Philosopher" (grandfather of The Moral Child and The Moral Intelligence of Children), "Children think for themselves. The basic ideas of children do not come directly from adults or other children and will be maintained in spite of adult teaching." Children learn to reason in accordance with a pre-wired biological schedule. The most we can do is nudge them into the next stage.
No one goes further than Kohlberg in rejecting traditional moral education. Believing that only mature reasoning would lead the individual to an acceptance of "justice, rights, and the Golden Rule," he derided any attempt to introduce children to particular goods, famously dubbing it the "bag of virtues" approach. The whole moral inheritance of social norms and religious codes has nothing to offer the growing child; to the contrary, they run the risk of stifling his moral autonomy. Asked by parents and teachers why so many of his recommended lessons seemed to lead to the conclusion that children should resist authority, he scoffed, "Such teachers do not believe moral behavior should be based on reasoning. Rather, it should be based on the adult's preaching and on stories and situations that affirm the child's faith in the adult's authority." Like the democratic toddler we saw earlier, the healthy individual is the one who does not submit readily to his parents or rules. To become moral, the child has only to retreat in solitary meditation to the private monastery of his mind.
But Kohlberg did not see how completely his own individualistic moral system, which culminated in what he considered nature's law, was in fact the product of inherited prejudices rather than abstract reasoning. As one anthropologist objected, Kohlberg believed ethical maturity would necessarily lead one to oppose "capital punishment, hierarchy, tribalism, and divine authority." We should have known: nature's highest moral achievement is a Harvard professor.
Kohlberg's student, Carol Gilligan, is commonly understood to have moderated her teacher's celebration of autonomy, but in reality she has taken his ideas about a naturally self-generated morality to a new extreme. Her revolutionary first book, In a Different Voice, was a milestone of feminist thought both inside and outside the academy, influencing everyone from ed-school faculty to management consultants. Gilligan argued that Kohlberg and other theorists of moral development had told the story only from a man's point of view, as an ascent toward greater personal autonomy and mastery of abstract rules of justice. From this vantage point, women, who tend to be more embedded in relationships and to look for meaning in concrete situations, inevitably appeared deviant or immature. Gilligan made a plea for a distinctive feminine moral sense, what she called an "ethic of care," to supplement the already deified male "ethic of justice."
Gilligan's fame intensified to stardom—in 1996 Time pronounced her one of the 25 most influential Americans—when in her later books she advanced a notion that has now become conventional wisdom: that girls, as they enter adolescence, suffer a loss of self-esteem. Her account of how this happens is a remarkable instance of the American Child Pastoral.
Her moral biography of girlhood reads like this: Until preadolescence a young girl's relationships, the central arena of her moral development, are guileless and open, or, as Gilligan says, "genuine." She knows what she wants from others and asks for it without fuss. Even her conflicts smell sweet. Once she has "judge[d] which disagreements are worth having," says Gilligan, she enters into them with clarity and good sense. Girls of this age, with their "rich emotional lives," are perfectly authentic creatures; they "speak of their thoughts and feelings about relationships in direct ways." This authenticity leads them to "wisdom and generosity" and, in the words of a colleague Gilligan quotes approvingly, "a profound sense of morality." These untainted beings are not just morally intelligent—they're geniuses.
But then shades of the prison house begin to close about the growing girl. They "approach the wall of shoulds"; they are forced to endure "psychological foot-binding," as their spirits are crushed by the exacting requirements of the world around them. They fall under "the tyranny of the nice and the kind," as Gilligan labels their moral education. "`Nice' girls are always calm, controlled, quiet," she writes. "They never cause a ruckus; they are never noisy, bossy, or aggressive; they are not anxious; they do not cause trouble." Though the viciously cliquish Laurel School in Cleveland—where her 1992 book, Meeting at the Crossroads (written with Lyn Mikel Brown), was researched—often resembles an all-girl revue of Lord of the Flies, Gilligan is convinced that these girls have undergone not too little of the civilizing process but too much. By forbidding the easygoing, naturally occurring conflicts of girls' early years and thereby suppressing their authenticity, she argues, adults poison their organic relationships. The once lively, honest girls lose their "voice" and succumb to doubt, self-abnegation, and "silence."
Like her teacher, Gilligan goes to the limit in her dismissal of socializing authority. For her, what has universally been recognized as the work of civilization—the growing child's gains in self-control, her increasing civility—is "tyranny." In Meeting at the Crossroads, an 11-year-old recalls that when she was younger, "I had more fights or arguments." But now she has learned that "I'm not always right; [my friends] could have been just as right, and they have their thoughts too." Some might find this touching evidence of nascent maturity, but not Gilligan. She frets that the girl "has to suspend what she really feels . . . which, in effect, removes her from genuine relationship." She makes a similar judgment about Lauren, whose mother has encouraged her to "think before she speaks or acts." Lauren tells how she thinks back to her mother's advice and agrees to share the computer with a classmate instead of fighting over it. Gilligan can only worry about "what Lauren gives up by playing by these rules." At ten, Noura no longer wants "to fight over the stupid little things" with her brother, Gilligan reports. According to this vulgar Wordsworth of the girls' school, "Noura is beginning, it seems, to disconnect from her feelings and knowledge in an attempt to connect to what others want."
It is the rebellious younger girls who "refuse to take no for an answer" who earn Gilligan's respect. When Lauren, who ponders resisting "a really dumb" school assignment, gives in and does her homework, Gilligan haughtily registers her disapproval. "No one," she remarks, "seems to notice that Lauren doesn't say what she wants." On the other hand, Karin, who stalks out of class because her teacher fails to call on her, gets credit for "blow[ing] the whistle on relational violations." "The capacity for these eight-year-olds to be openly angry—to be `really mad'—to be disruptive and resistant," she enthuses, "gives them an air of unedited authority and authenticity." Girls who resist doing their homework, who argue with their teachers, who rebel against their mothers, who fight with their friends: this is moral health as envisioned by one of America's premier psychologists.
What's especially unsettling about all this is that Gilligan has been hailed as our great philosopher of interconnectedness, the corrector of our American (and putatively male) infatuation with autonomy. The truth is, Gilligan is even more radical than her peers when it comes to authentic individualism. She disdains the very idea of self-control and seeks to remove girls from this universally recognized requirement of civilization. And while she celebrates "relationships," she has no patience whatever with the demands for mutual accommodation and forbearance they inevitably make on us.
Gilligan's more general—and depressingly familiar—failure is that she cannot evoke for her readers the adult's role in introducing children to their basic obligations. Like her fellow child experts, she promotes the myth of an autonomous child-artist who can design his own moral picture. The danger, as we are discovering, is that the picture will be an ugly one. At the very least, the myth leads to nonsensical conclusions: that we can live in society but be completely self-made, that we can be attached but unencumbered, that we can have relationships without obligations.
No country can be that free.