465. Innocence

The word “innocent” comes from the Latin word “nocere” – “to harm.” It does not come from words having anything to do with either knowledge or intention. So if we decided to go strictly by the word’s root, we would call a person “innocent” if the person did not do any harm, regardless of whether harm was intended. And “innocent” would bear no relation to “ignorant.” But epistemology is not meaning, just as history is not destiny; if “innocent” has come to sometimes mean “intending no harm” and sometimes “unaware,” so be it.
Some people believe that children are especially innocent – that they want nothing but the best for everyone. They believe that people start out that way, and gradually (or not so gradually) get sneaky, cynical, cruel, and all those
other nasty adjectives. They blame “society,” although “society,” viewed concretely, is really just a bunch of people, all of whom started out as children.
I don’t believe in the innocence of children or anyone else. I think people’s needs, desires, and problems bump into each other pretty regularly, and people harm each other. And I think some of that harm is premeditated, some not. Children who don’t yet know language sometimes grab things from other children and/or hit. It’s pretty natural; we all start out with wants and needs, and we do what we think will get those wants and needs met.
We start out fairly practical about our priorities. If grabbing and hitting don’t work, we rely on other strategies that seem to work better – cooing, smiling – anything that works. I once spent some time with a father and his one year old son. The boy kept throwing things on the floor. The father kept saying “No!” in an angry voice. It looked to me as if the boy was having fun. He was getting very conspicuous feedback that told him his behavior was having an effect, and he liked that.
I decided to get involved. I asked the boy to give me one of the objects he had thrown on the floor. He did, and I thanked him, somewhat dramatically. The boy liked that feedback (probably even more than he liked “No!”), and brought me something else he had thrown down. He kept doing this until the floor was clean (and my lap was full of what he’d thrown down). And I don’t think guilt or innocence had anything to do with this process. I don’t think it’s very meaningful or useful to call children “innocent.” That doesn’t mean I think there’s anything wrong with them. And it doesn’t mean I don’t think children have qualities adults would do well to emulate. They do, just as adults have qualities children would do well to emulate. But I don’t think our innocence and guilt have anything to do with how old we are.

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