Thursday, October 08, 2020

The Freedom to Be That Change


Most of us want to raise children who are ethical and caring. Indeed, when surveyed 96 percent of us say that this is a "very important, if not essential" parenting goal. I've not seen the numbers for teachers, but I would assume that a super majority of us feel likewise. If nothing else, we want the future to be populated with adults of character and we believe it begins with us, the adults responsible for the rearing and education of children.

Unfortunately, a full 80 percent of youth surveyed say that they are more concerned with "achievement" or "happiness" than with caring for others. Not only that, but eight in 10 also say that their parents and teachers feel the same way. And to put the cherry on this ugly cake, teachers, by the same percentage, perceive that the parents of their students value achievement over moral character. In other words, we are, as parents and educators, quite consistently sending our children a message we don't want to be sending.

Ironically, most research also shows that lack of caring for others leads to humans being less successful and less happy.

We are living in a time in which one in five children are suffering from a diagnosable mental illness. Our schools have become increasingly academic, where our children are being judged, daily, by their ability to pass tests and otherwise regurgitate facts on command, while their "free time" is being gobbled up by homework and resume-building extracurriculars. Our policymakers increasingly emphasize the economic importance of schooling, while ignoring the fundamental role education plays in building the character traits necessary to productively and cooperatively participate in the democratic process of self-governance. Despite our stated intentions, we are raising a generation of children who feel disconnected from their fellow citizens, who are pitted against one another at younger and younger ages, and who are urged to "race to the top," a metaphor that naturally places one's fellow humans a step below. 

I'm not the only one who has pointed this out, of course, and there are countless attempts underway to "teach" empathy, compassion, and caring. The Atlantic article to which I've linked here, quotes experts saying that parents and teachers ought to redouble their efforts to "give their children opportunities" to be helpful and caring, one even going so far as to encourage "repetition," the hallmark of the sort of rote learning that characterizes so much of our "achievement" focused educational systems, as if it is just another subject to be included in a pre-packaged curriculum.

We don't need any more curricula. We don't need any more subjects to be graded or judged by adults. Trying to "teach" caring for others is doomed to failure. I mean, think how most children feel about the "subjects" we already teach. Do we really think that we should teach caring the way we teach math or English?

The way children learn to care for others is through example and practice. If we truly want our children to help others, then we must role model it. They must see that we genuinely do prioritize caring over achievement because right now they clearly perceive we are just giving it lip service. 

Secondly, we must set children free to actually practice being helpful and caring which means we must stop pitting them against one another like combatants in some sort of reality TV program and leave them free to engage with the world as human beings rather than cogs in an achievement machine. Human beings are born to connect with one another through helping one another. Children as young as 14 months consistently demonstrate the drive to help others without the expectation of anything in return. Over the course of the past two decades, I've watched young children, through their play with one another, discovering the joy and intrinsic rewards that comes from caring deeply for one another, cooperating, and finding the joy of being not better than others, but rather a contributing member of a community.

Caring for others is not not something that can be "taught." It must be experienced. It must be discovered. If we really want our children to be ethical, empathetic, compassionate, and caring, we must step back from "teaching" and "parenting" and instead be the change we want in the world, while providing our children the freedom to be that change as well.

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I'm excited to announce that Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in Australia and New Zealand as well as the US, Canada, the UK, Iceland, and Europe. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. 

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