Jean-Jaques Rousseau

Rousseau wrote Émile, or On Education, 250 years ago – but the pedagogical principles described in this novel still have much to offer modern educators.

Humankind is good by nature. And the best to offer one’s children is freedom, faith in themselves and the possibility to follow their curiosity and make their own experiences.

Today, these considerations don’t seem so strange or surprising. But when the Swiss philosopher Jean-Jaques Rousseau submitted them in his educational novel Émile in 1762 people took serious offence. The book was burned, and Rousseau had to flee from his home in France to avoid being arrested and thrown into jail.

This was during the times of the Enlightenment when rationality, the human mind and formal teaching were prevailing ideas. It was a completely different era then … or was it?

Not really. It is thought-provoking to see our childhood and upbringing through Rousseau’s eyes. Whether you agree on his ideas or not, it is obvious that what he saw 250 years ago hasn’t change much. His pedagogical principles still have a lot to offer to modern educators.

Let them jump, run and yell


Rousseau was first and foremost advocating the natural even though he was not an opponent to sensibility. He argued that the natural state of being has value in itself. It should permeate childhood – which should not just be a preparation for adulthood.

He only had spite for the “pedantic teaching mania, which was only teaching children what they could easily teach themselves.” Like walking. “Nothing is more foolish than the effort put into teaching a child to walk. As if anyone had ever seen an adult not being able to walk because of neglect from the nurse,” Rousseau writes.

“No, Émile does not need a walking aid,” he assures. “As soon as he can put one foot in front of the other, he only needs support on cobbles. Nature has means to strengthen the child’s body and make it grow. To counteract it is a deadly sin. Don’t force a child to sit still when it wants to walk or to walk when it wants to sit still. They need to be allowed to jump, run and yell as much as they want. Their constitution strives to be strong and demands movement.”

How does that correspond with the early school start and the widespread tendency to have children in a stroller even though they are fully capable of walking?

A lesson in pain

The free movement Rousseau wanted to give his student, Émile, has consequences. But that is a good thing according to his teacher.

“My student will get little bruises often. But he will always be happy. If your children get less bruised it is arguably because they are under steady surveillance, always being guarded and therefore in a bad mood,” Rousseau writes. And he continues: “I am not eager to avoid Émile being hurt. It is at that age one shall have the first lessons in courage and realize that when you can carry the lesser pains you get to practice for the big ones.”

“When going to lengths to protect the child from harm, the child will become helpless as a grownup and believe himself to be near death by every scratch,” Rousseau muses. It is important that the child is not touchy and cries because of a bump on the head or a nosebleed or a cut in the finger.

“If a child is so spoiled it cries over nothing, I’ll soon let it cry in vain and have that river dry. As long as the child is crying, I will not approach it, but I’ll rush to it as soon as it stops. Albeit not with a terrified facial impression. That will just frighten the child more.”

Sensibility is the goal – not the means

Rousseau can seem harsh in his attitude towards the bruises of childhood, but he also said that “nature has created little children to be loved and aided.” But the parents can overdo their love by maybe inoculating false needs. “The safest way to make a child unhappy is by letting it get used to having what it wants,” Rousseau warned. “Because when it becomes an adult and discovers that it can’t have everything, it will dive into hopelessness and believe it can achieve nothing.”

Rousseau had this comment about little children acting like kings of the family: “What could be more offensive and unnatural than seeing a domineering child command its surroundings and being demanding to everyone – even to the people of whom the child is depending for survival.”

Rousseau had his inspiration to his theories on his frequent walks in nature. He sent his own five children to an orphanage as soon as they were born. A decision he later regretted bitterly, and which made him write in Émile: “He who cannot fulfil a father’s duty, does not have the right to be one.”

“We should not teach children the sciences,
but give them a taste for them.

~ Jean-Jaques Rousseau

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