Similarly to how children risk their lives, testing their courage, they test their conscience, violating rules and laws in order to test (on purpose!) the awe-inspiring feeling of shame. Actions that result in punishment and awe-inspiring, terrible feeling of shame attract children as a test, in which independence develops.
What do children do to test their conscience!
Two ten year old girls, two friends from wealthy families, beg in the street asking for coins, and then they buy two bags of potato chips, and go home, happy that the fear and thrill of getting caught and the shame of begging are behind.
Two fourteen year old boys, very reasonable teens, have kitchen duty at a camp; suddenly steal a lot of butter for a group of kids. Why do they need so much butter? What will they do with it? If caught – they will be ashamed. They, themselves, would die from the shame, but they steal it and then throw it away. A few sixth grade students – each of them separately is honest – throw stones at a passing train breaking windows, and when the train stops and a furious driver runs to the teenagers, they are not going to hide: “Are we the ones who did that? Did you see that it was us?”
Do you think they didn’t know that to beg, to steal, and to break windows (with the risk of injuring people) – is not allowed, is conscienceless, is shameful? Of course they knew! Or they were so weak willed that they couldn’t control themselves? Of course not. But they are drawn to the irresistible, unexplainable desire to test their fear and shame, to pass through a moral adventure, even dangerous to their life and honor. There is nothing to do about this, it was and it will be so. It is good luck if nobody is caught, nobody is exposed – the fear and shame that they have experienced were enough for the rest of their life. It is bad luck if someone is caught and put in the hands of ruthless people, not able and not willing to forgive… But what is there to do? They consciously accepted the risk, and that risk isn’t a toy, children risk in full -with their life and dignity.
In order for a man to act with conscience he must be sure that he is driven exactly by conscience and not by fear. He doesn’t steal – not because he is afraid to steal (no, he isn’t afraid, he has already stolen!) but because of his conscience. Here is the reason why children do bad things: they test themselves. There are two brakes in a man: fear and shame. Children overcome fear to give place to shame, so that to live and act not because of fear but because of conscience, i.e. to feel independent. Compulsion of one’s own conscience – is the only kind of compulsion that gives a man a feeling of freedom. The more dependent on a conscience a man is the more independent he is.
Janusz Korczak wrote, “My principle is -let a child sin, because in conflicts with conscience a moral stability develops.” If a child grows cautious and well-behaved, who never undertakes anything wrong, then how is he to ever know what conscience and shame is, never feeling remorse and feeling of repentance?
Every time a child undertakes something, that from our point of view is shocking, let’s stop and think: what was it? Testing of courage or an automatic following of the crowd? Was it a bad habit or a heavy vice?
A terrible act as a test, if a child is caught, is worth the accusation, and maybe, it is worth the punishment, otherwise, perhaps, the child will be disappointed: what was the risk if nothing follows it? Next time I should do something really risky… And besides, it is useful to teach a child to be responsible for his actions.
If it is not an act of an honest man, but a vice of a weak-willed child then to punish him is absurd, because vice must be cured as a disease almost always by a change of circumstances or strengthening of supervision. Best of all this disease is cured by faith in a child, by a constant assurance, “You are not like this, you are good,” and, mainly, by patience. We shouldn’t fix our attention on vices; fair compassion – is the best remedy against any vice.
Parenting For Everyone, by S.Soloveychik, book2 Part 2 Chapter 24