Emile, The Perfect Child - Rousseau Theory on Parenting and Childhood Education
My favourite parenting guide
Whenever I have doubts about my parenting skills, I open up a page from a book called Emile, read few paragraphs and then think about what I just read. This reminds me that parenting is an endless argument, very personal and subjective and that whatever I do, I have to make sure I let my child to develop her good, natural aptitudes.
"We are born weak, we need strength; we are born lacking everything, we need aid; we are born stupid, we need judgment. All that we lack at birth and that we need when we are grown is given by education."
The paragraph above had been written by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a French philosopher and writer, and published in 1762, the era of Enlightenment. Notice how contemporary his thoughts are, how well they blend in today's educational system. No wonder why...because Rousseau's philosophy about childhood education is regarded as the beginning of our modern child development methods.
Who's Rousseau? A parent without children?
Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born in 1712 in a protestant french family who lived in Geneva. His mother died shortly after giving birth and Jean-Jacques was raised, until he was 10 years old, by his father with the help of an aunt.
When his father relocated in Nyon, he left his son with a maternal uncle who sent Jean-Jacques to school where he learned mathematics and drawing. By the age of 16, when he run away from Geneva, he had held two jobs already. For the rest of his life (he died in 1778) he wandered around Europe. He had several other jobs, all for short terms and was romantically involved with several women. Some of his love affairs were a three way relations while others resulted in offsprings, which he never knew.
In 1749, encouraged by Dennis Diderot, he published his first article in Encyclopedia. He will continue to contribute to this famous collection less and less as he was putting more efforts in his major works.
His fame is manly based on three books: Nouvelle Heloise -1759, a romantic novel about the love between a noble girl and a poor man; Emile-1762, an essay on learning development and childhood education; Social Contract-1762, where he speaks about his theories in governments and social representation.
It is said that Rousseau had an unique perspective about already known philosophical concepts. During his life, he was accused of stilling other people's theories and rewriting them with his own words. Diderot, a long time friend said: "He sucked ideas from me, used them himself, and then affected to despise me".
Emile, first child education experiment
Rousseau starts his work by an introduction where he explain why it is important to educate a child. He also states that everything he writes is the product of his own thinking, probably because by the time he published the book, he had had 5 children of his own that he never ever met. He pursued the mother to give them away to a Parisian hospital. So it is a bit striking that he wrote this book on education and child rearing.
The book is about a boy, named Emile, who receives an ideal education. He is to be raised in a countryside, environment regarded as proper and vigorous. He has one exclusive tutor, who takes care of him until the age of 20, the stone age for adulthood. Emile is educated in stages with appropriate methods for each age: emotions and instincts - from infancy till 12 years old, reasons development - from 12 to 16, and skills development - from 16 to adulthood, around the age of 20.
Rousseau's theory sustains that children are born innocent and if they become bad citizens or bad "men" is because of what they are taught or, better, not taught, as a result of parenting and social impact. A professor should not try to force a child to learn what's good and wrong, better to correct a wrong doing and explain the reasoning.
Children should be allowed a free development, according with their needs, on their own rhythm. For example, they should only be taught to write and read when they want to do so. A physical punishment is not appropriate for a child since, this way, he cannot learn to be kind, rather let him feel the consequences. And finally, every child need to be taught a skill that he can master and make a living out of it.
Rousseau is the first one to write about childhood as a distinct period in the life of a person, as opposed to what was the norm in time that regarded children as miniature adults which were expected to act and think like adults. It is said that he created the childhood theory.
Also, he is the founder of child-centered education theory.
There are some other ideas in his book that are far for being realistic, like how to educate girls, but Rousseau's theory about childhood development is considered the foundation of modern education. That means all the philosophy behind today's educational system is coming from he's book, which is not quite true since there were parenting methods and learning systems in most civilized countries, with roots in Greece and Rome and Egypt. But the way he speaks about rearing a child, the way he builds the concept of education is quite revolutionary.
I often find myself reading it and being amazed of his powerful words, so contemporary that I'm feeling like reading a parenting advise from yesterday's newspaper. You can find the entire book in digital edition at Amazon.