How are children shaped?

The kind of world we live in, whether it be work or play or love or even politics and the fate of communities, depends a lot on the experiences we had as children. Can or should this be influenced beyond the family? If so, how and by whom?


Thor May
Adelaide, 2016



This page is an initial starter list for discussing the "Children" topic. The page makes no special claim to quality, and additions are welcome. 







Basic contact links:  

meetup group:

topic suggestions:   

topics already discussed:

comments: Thor May -  

Thor's own websites:

1. articles at  ;

2. personal site: [an ancient site with many byeways]


=>Reading list: go to the end of these notes


Comments on the topic by Thor:

1. Introduction

<> “Before I got married I had six theories about raising children; now, I have six children and no theories.” ― John Wilmot

If birds and bees could talk they would surely have an opinion on child raising, and probably lament the erratic outcomes of their own  efforts. It is therefore no surprise that in every social class in every human society that has ever existed not only opinions but rules and institutions decree how children should be raised. Similarly in every family, regardless of actual knowledge or ability, there are also strong opinions about child raising. Trying to change any of these opinions, rules or institutions is therefore a life-consuming task, and at every step such attempts are open to challenge. Any public agreement which exists about desirable outcomes is always subverted intentionally or unintentionally within individual families.

Even when parents agree at the outset, as their children move to adulthood, they will ruefully accept in the end that any two children apparently raised under identical conditions are likely to emerge as radically different personalities. The world impinges on them differently. Some individuals curl up and die inside from even mild abuse, while others seem to thrive on adversity. 

Despite the erratic influence of families, cultures and institutions on individuals, most people will agree that being raised as, say, a Japanese will leave an imprint on character and behaviour which is identifiably different from being raised as, say, an Italian. It is arguable that mobility and the arrival of global cultural influences through the Internet etc is diminishing this differentiation. Nevertheless it is easy to find politicians and constituencies everywhere who claim that their own cultural brand is “exceptional”; (in the United States this is raised somewhat absurdly to an official level).  If we could time travel, it is also pretty certain that an English child raised in 1066 AD would feel pretty much like a foreigner if dumped in London, circa 2016 (even putting aside linguistic changes).

2. The  ideological imprinting of children

<> ‘Be very, very careful what you put in that head because you will never, ever get it out’  Cardinal Thomas Wolsey [1473-1530]

It is a bit unfair to quote Wolsey on children, though it is often done, since he was actually referring to that layabout of the eight wives, Henry VIII of England. Nevertheless it has been a prime objective of priests and religious types since time immemorial to get ‘em young and indoctrinate youth with the habit of looking to the favoured doctrine on matters of morals. My own view is that this technique has rarely made good men out of bad men; (the good guys claim the doctrine as a reason for what they do, and the bad guys claim it as an excuse for what they do). In the Christian case, 2000 years of evidence seems to suggest that hell will always be well populated, and that home of Abrahamic religions, the Middle East, still resembles the closest thing to hell on earth.

Yet in spite of widespread recidivism from early religious indoctrination, it does seem to gather the bulk of kids-turning-into-adults under the flag (if not the practice) of whatever religion their own parents exposed them to.  Facebook and other social media internet sites of narcissistic indulgence may be putting a new twist on this.

Looking east, Confucianism claims not to be a religion, having no official god, while Buddhism in its pure form also claims to be a god-free zone. Common people, as happens in every culture, have made sure both are richly populated with gods and spirits for everyday practice. Like all religions, these two doctrines claim their mandates, each by promoting a certain moral universe, ideally taught from an early age. Those values, as with the Abrahamic doctrines, are more often observed in the breach by mere mortals. On the other hand they have often succeeded in conveying less doctrinaire notions of good and evil to their child acolytes than the monotheistic competition from the West.

When 19th Century Marxism became a banner ideology for Lenin, and then the Chinese communists, both of course syncretised local cultural values into the mix, but like all ideologies before them (supernatural and earthly), one of the urgent key tasks became to infuse children and youths with the fervour of beliefs they promoted. As with mainline traditional religions, the ideology of communism(s) became a patina, a face put on for public expression by all who wished to prosper. Unluckily, earthly ideologies like Marxism are easier to blame for inevitable human failures than godly faiths. When I taught in Chinese universities for 5 years, the compulsory classes in communist faith were almost universally loathed. (This ideological loathing should not be confused with the rather torrid nationalism instilled by design in the same youths).

One of the characteristics of belief in children and youths everywhere is that most of them suffer from cultural amnesia. Anything that happened before their short lives began belongs to a mythical era, even if it is known about. This childish amnesia allows a purity of motive uncontaminated by historical lessons. It also allows the past to be almost  entirely erased or retold to justify the politics of the moment. Modern China (it offers so many examples) is one of the saddest cases. The so-called Cultural Revolution of 1966-76 had a dying madman, Mao Zedong, turn the children of China on their parents, kill millions of people, in an insane erasure of everything which came before. And to this day, China’s present children are not allowed to know about these crimes.   

The funding of learning institutions by religious bodies is more ambiguous than the crude assault on child sensibilities seen in the Chinese case, or in some other overtly political projects like education in Nazi Germany. Missionary schools worldwide have quite often introduced literacy itself to isolated and tribal communities,  and so opened up opportunities to children who would otherwise never have had it. This kind of influence runs on a scale from the benign to outright propaganda. South Korea has numerous schools and universities for example which will only employ “proven Christians”. I stumbled across the same, openly, of all places in a private university in central China; (much of the religious propagation in China is concealed). It is widely understood now that Saudi Arabia has funded Islamic religious schools, madrasas, all over the world, but particularly in countries like Pakistan and Bangaladesh. There is no inherent reason that madrasas should be subversive, except that the Wahabi Islamic sect which underpins the Saudi state is known to foster extremism and intolerance.

3. Are children shaped by formal schooling?

Yes of course children are shaped by formal schooling, but often in ways not expected by teachers, educational institutions, politicians or parents. Think back for yourself to all those endless days you spent as a captive in classrooms listening to teachers drone on about this or that. How much of it could you pass an exam in now? Really. OK, I have a pretty ingrained knowledge of multiplication tables up to 12x12 (how many supermarket cashiers have that now?), but ask me to solve a quadratic equation, computer free, and I’d probably struggle. Primary school is mostly a blur in my memory.

What most of us carry away from school is not about curriculums. It is the memory of the human relationships we stumbled in and out of. It may be the memory of how often authority figures fail to match words with deeds. It is the observation and lesson of how to survive as a cog in large organizations, living by the clock. It is the conclusions we drew from trying to reconcile the words, attitudes and behaviours of our parents with the words, attitudes and behaviours of people beyond our family. And so on. But the real lessons you took away from school are almost certainly different from the lessons I took away.  When it comes to the kid who spent half of his life on detention or expelled, we are in a different universe.

Mass public education at elementary and then intermediate secondary levels has been a common experience in Australia since the late 19th Century. It was a struggle in the 1950s to persuade my father that housing me for a further two years to get through senior high school was worthwhile. As late as the 1960s higher tertiary degrees were rare, even in universities. The notion of what should go into these huge chunks of childhood and early adulthood time has evolved, though less than might be expected. There have always been gifted teachers making brilliant use of the tools to hand. There have always been armies of mediocre teachers plodding doggedly through text books, leaving countless resentful students in their wake.

The scope for students to optimize their own potentials has always been uneven amongst schools and classes. As with truck drivers, technology has made it more possible for teachers to be under the bureaucratic surveillance of administrators and even politicians. This is rarely a good thing. I wrote a PhD on language teaching productivity. The learning productivity of students is what schools are meant to be about. In over twenty case studies, I showed that this was almost never realized. In institutions, the self-defined productivity of paper shuffling administrators always overrides any competing levels of productivity, such as that of students.



Questions to ask and answer

1. How does the changing number of children in families affect child development, and ultimately societies themselves?

2. How are children impacted by various forms of intervention by governments, voluntary organizations, religious and political institutions etc ?

3. How has medical knowledge and public health understanding impacted on children in past generations? What about the future?

4. How is the virtual world of the internet shaping children and young adults? Will this fundamentally change them from past generations?

5. How does the presence of children affect adult relationships?

6. How does the presence more or fewer children in a society shape that society and its politics?

7. Most people who have been involved with mass public education know that it is massively inefficient in terms of knowledge, understanding and skills acquired, measuring these against the investment of time involved. Further, most teenagers leave school with little intrinsic wish to continue formal learning. Is any of this likely to change? If so, how?

8. It seems that a large proportion of every population in every country, including huge numbers of parents everywhere, have poor people management skills with both adults and children. Their notions of social management centre around coercion rather than persuasion and example. The outcomes are reflected in politics. Will any of this ever change? If so, how?

9. How does the changing demography between social or ethnic groups influence a society and its politics?

10. Large numbers of people, especially in more developed societies, have chosen not to have children at all. They remain interested in the candy store of sex which nature has provided to encourage continuation of the species. Is this a fundamental evolutionary change in humans, a response to overpopulation, or what?


[much more to come]  


Reading List*  (other suggestions welcome)


Birch, Leann, with Jennifer S. Savage, and Alison Ventura (2007) "Influences on the Development of Children's Eating Behaviours: From Infancy to Adolescence". Can J Diet Pract Res. 2007; 68(1): s1–s56, published in the National Center for Biotechnology Information website, online @

Bradberry, Travis (8 November 2016) "8 Powerful Ways To Mold Your Children Into Leaders"/ Forbes magazine, online @  

Copeland, Anna (29 July 2016) "Children in solitary confinement: we must stop treating kids in the system like adults: We have lost our way because we’ve forgotten that children are entitled to special protections, even those who behave badly, who are violent or criminal".

Dobson-Mouawad, Phoenicia Hebebe (16 July 2016) "How not to name your child – five golden rules - Thinking of giving your baby an unusual name? Think about the effect it will have on their life". The Guardian online @ (n.d.) "Child Development and Early Learning". FactsForLife website online @  

Feeney, Katherine (September 26, 2014) "Is a smack and a spank the same thing?". Brisbane Times online @  

Ghose, Tia (November 18, 2015) "Equality Is Shaped by Culture". Live Science website online @  

Hamilton, Jon (February 24, 2014) ""Orphans' Lonely Beginnings Reveal How Parents Shape A Child's Brain". National Public Radio (USA) online @ (n.d.) "How to Shape & Manage Your Young Child’s Behavior". website online @

Kaufman, Scott Barry (July 26, 2016) "Can Personality Be Changed? - Psychologists have long debated how flexible someone’s “true” self is". The Atlantic online @ (n.d.) "Why culture matters for children's development and wellbeing". website (Australian Government mental health program) online @

Lorenzi, Natalie (n.d.) "How Birth Order Shapes Personality - Oldest, middle, youngest, or only child? Where you are can shape who you are". American Baby website online @  

Marquardt, Elizabeth (December 11, 2005) " We’re Not Damaged Goods, But We’re Still Deeply Shaped by Divorce". Philadelphia Inquirer republished @  

Marquardt, Elizabeth (February 2005) "The Bad Divorce". First Things blog online @  

May, Thor (1983) "Child Language Teaching in the Pacific - A Project for Solomon Islands Primary School Teachers". [large PDF file] The Passionate Skeptic website online @  

May, Thor (1995) "Tarawonga - Sringwood, NSW, 1956" [narrative poem]. The Wrong Address prose poem anthology, online @  

May, Thor (1997)  "Apprentice Literacy  -  Designs for a Bonfire of the Vanities", in FINE PRINT (Journal of the Victorian Adult Literacy & Basic Education Council Inc.), Vol. 20, No.4, December 1997. Online in @

May, Thor (2000) "Seventeen in 1962" [poem] Time Passing poetry anthology, online @

May, Thorold (2010) “Language Tangle : Predicting and Facilitating Outcomes in Language Education". [PhD dissertation]. University of Newcastle NSW, research depository online @   

May, Thor (2014a)"People should require a licence to become parents". [Discussion notes from a Gentle Thinkers meetup in Brisbane. Note that these notes contain a further list of references on the topic]. The Passionate Skeptic website online @

May, Thor (2014b)"The purpose of education – a hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy?". online @

May, Thorold Pyrke (2003) "About Names". Thor's Korea Diary online @

Patterson, Te-Erika (May 1, 2014) "Do Children Just Take Their Parents' Political Beliefs? It's Not That Simple -  A recent study shows that children who are raised to have strong beliefs are also more likely to rebel against those views as they age". The Atlantic online @

RCH (n.d.) "Trauma: How are children different?". Royal Melbourne Children's Hospital, online @  

Remeikis, Amy (July 17 2016a) "Are our students being pushed 'too hard, too fast?' Brisbane Times online @

Remeikis, Amy (July 26 2016b) "1500 students suspended or expelled for assaulting Queensland teachers". Brisbane Times online @  

Rowlands, Letitia (January 29, 2014) "Mums in UAE forced to breastfeed for two years". Brisbane Times, online @

RT (15 Mar 2016) "Courtesy of NATO: Syrian children's lives shaped by violence and deprivation". Syndicated from RT (Russian news agency) to Signs of the Times website, online @  

Sassall, Yeong (January 28, 2014) "Growing up Asian in a white household". Daily Life online @  

ScienceDaily (17 September 2014) "Babies learn words differently as they age, researcher finds." University of Missouri-Columbia in ScienceDaily online @ .

ScienceDaily(21 July 2016) "Background noise may hinder toddlers' ability to learn words".Society for Research in Child Development in ScienceDaily, online @

Singh, Maanvi (December 19, 2014) "Some Early Childhood Experiences Shape Adult Life, But Which Ones?" National Public Radio (USA) online @   

Whitman, Chris (31 January 2014 ) "I fathered 34 children through sperm donation". The Guardian online @

Wikipedia (2016) "Parenting". Wikipedia online @

Wilson, Richard and Justin Mattys (2016) Maths Pathway [an alternative model for school learning] online @


Professional bio: Thor May has a core professional interest in cognitive linguistics, at which he has rarely succeeded in making a living. He has also, perhaps fatally in a career sense, cultivated an interest in how things work – people, brains, systems, countries, machines, whatever… In the world of daily employment he has mostly taught English as a foreign language, a stimulating activity though rarely regarded as a profession by the world at large. His PhD dissertation, Language Tangle, dealt with language teaching productivity. Thor has been teaching English to non-native speakers, training teachers and lecturing linguistics, since 1976. This work has taken him to seven countries in Oceania and East Asia, mostly with tertiary students, but with a couple of detours to teach secondary students and young children. He has trained teachers in Australia, Fiji and South Korea. In an earlier life, prior to becoming a teacher, he had a decade of finding his way out of working class origins, through unskilled jobs in Australia, New Zealand and finally England (after backpacking across Asia to England in 1972).

How Are Children Shaped?©Thor May July 2016


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