Friday, November 22, 2019

"You Want Your Children To Be Independent, Then It Terrifies You When They Are"

My mother once told me, "You want your children to be independent, then it terrifies you when they are." I was a teenager at the time, and while I don't recall the exactly circumstances, I'm sure I'd just done something that had terrified her. At the time, I took it in as information, something that was perhaps true, although not particularly useful, but now, having been a parent and having been around thousands of parents, I know she was expressing something that comes pretty close to being universal.

If there is anything we wish for our children is that they grow up to be their own people, free, capable, autonomous, and independent. In the counterbalance, however, there are the other things we value on their behalf, traits like empathy (with the ability to draw boundaries), courtesy (albeit not servility), thriftiness (stopping short of stinginess), caution (without timidity), outgoingness (but with a well-adjusted social filter), industriousness (with an understanding of balance), and kindness (without being a pushover). The list is long and complicated and all of us at one time or another have found ourselves attempting to instill these kinds of traits in our children, even if we ourselves are still finding our own way.

The truth is that independence is a pure good even if it doesn't necessarily lead to pure good. But without it, without the freedom to make mistakes, to learn the often hard lessons that lead to the internalization of traits like courtesy and caution and thrift, children are left to learn them later in life, as teenagers or young adults, when the consequences of their inevitable mistakes are likely to be far more dire than they would have been had the mistakes been made, had the learning happened, when they were children.

We've all heard people express the sentiment that kids can't be trusted with freedom and autonomy, that without our adult vigilance and control, they will use any freedom and autonomy they are granted to do "stupid things." And, indeed, these critics can point to any number of examples from the real world, usually of teenagers making bad choices. But that is a faulty conclusion.

I would counter with the assertion that those bad choices are, in fact, a direct result of having had limited experience with freedom and autonomy up to that point. Too many teens and young adults have spent their childhoods being controlled by our institutions and our parenting, being told where to go and what to do. In those rare moments when allowed a bit of freedom, they of course make mistakes. Mistakes that are necessary to learning how to live with freedom. All too often, we see these mistakes, these bad choices, as confirmation that they simply cannot be trusted with freedom, but the truth is that they are merely a sign of inexperience.

Better, I think, if we really want our children to grow up to be their own people, free, capable, autonomous, and independent, we must allow them to experience freedom from an early age, to be allowed to make the mistakes necessary to learning what freedom is really all about. We must let them fall down and to be there to pick them back up, because that is the single most important lesson we can learn through freedom: independence means nothing unless it's balanced with interdependence.

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Thursday, November 21, 2019

With My Bucket Full

"Teacher Tom, look how many jewels I have."

I peered into her bucket, responding, "That's a lot of jewels." The word "jewels" referred to the colorful florist marbles that she had collected from the playground.

Her friend in turn held her bucket out to me. "Look at my jewels, Teacher Tom."

I replied, "You have jewels too."

The girls were playing a semi-competitive game, hunting as a team until a jewel was spotted. Then it became a mad dash as the girls ran, dove, elbowed, and pushed in order to secure the sparkling bit of glass treasure for their own hoard. They had been playing the game all afternoon, side-by-side. Occasionally, one would complain, "Hey, you're getting all of them," or mope, "I'm not getting any," but their words were directed to one another, not adults, which meant it was none of my business.

As they stood beside me with their buckets, one of the girls boasted, "I have more than you."

"You do not!" her friend answered hotly before continuing in a more downcast voice, "I want more."

She replied dismissively, "Well, I guess you're going to have to find more."

Her friend didn't answer, remaining glumly silent with her head down in an exaggerated show of emotion. Her friend studied her for a moment, then chirped, "I know! I could give you some of mine!" She grabbed a fistful from her bucket and dropped them into her friend's bucket, instantly cheering them both up.

"Hey, Teacher Tom, do you want to play with us?" Before I could respond she ran off, returning with an empty bucket for me.

I looked into my empty bucket and said matter-of-factly, "My bucket is empty."

They looked into my bucket. They looked into their own buckets, which now contained roughly the same number of jewels. "I know! I could give you one of mine!"

"And I can give you one of mine!"

They took turns then, adding to my bucket one jewel at a time, until I said, "Now I have enough jewels. Thank you." With that, they ran off to play their game of hunting, running, and elbowing, leaving me with my bucket full.

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Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Children Do Not Need Toys To Have A Playful Childhood

It's difficult for most of us to imagine a space for children that doesn't include toys and lots of them. Classrooms, playrooms, even entire homes are taken over by these mostly plastic, mostly brightly colored things. Even teachers and parents who seek to impose limits, often find themselves awash in toys. They come in like waves upon the shore, borne by well-intended relatives and other benefactors seeking the favor of children or a new home for a toy that was "barely used." It's so bad that regular toys purges are required.

It's a phenomenon that emerged during the second half of the 20th century when manufacturers began to increasingly employ modern marketing methods to target children, and through them their parents. It's been such a successful enterprise that most of us consider it perfectly natural that if children are present there must be toys. In fact, many families travel suitcases stuffed with toys because they cannot imagine their children without them. This, of course, has not always been the case. For most of human history children didn't play with toys at all, but rather the real things they found in their world and from what I've observed over the years, when left without toys, most children, perhaps after a period of adjustment, don't miss them. Indeed, forest and nature school educators report that children in environments without toys to distract them engage more deeply and explore more fully.

If you place a toy lawn mower alongside a real lawn mower, we all know that the toy will be ignored in favor of the real thing. Real hammers are always preferred over toy ones. I once purchased a clutch of chid-sized brooms for the classroom, but the adult-sized brooms were always preferred. We often think of childhood as a time apart from the adult world, but children have other ideas as they are forever ignoring their toys in favor of the real world of boxes, sticks, and the pots and pans they pull from the kitchen cabinets. They will always prefer the fort they have made from their bedsheets over the manufactured playhouse. They will always choose your real telephone over the hollow plastic one.

This isn't to begrudge children all their toys. There is always a place for a few well-curated balls and dolls, some puzzles and board games. Building blocks of some sort are likewise welcome as are costumes. And although I classify them as transportation more than toys, wagons and trikes are fine things. It's not toys as much as the mountains of toys that's the problem, the ubiquitousness of them, the garish, plastic chaos. Children do not need toys to have a playful childhood, the long history of humanity shows us that. What they do need is a safe, lovely place in which they are free to make their own "toys" of the real world.

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Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Instead Of Warning Children To "Be Careful"

Some time ago, I riffed on what is popularly called "risky play," what author and consultant Arthur Battram argues we should call "challenging play," what I want to re-label "safety play," and what one reader pointed out used to just be called "play."

Whatever we call it, most people who read here agree that we need to give children more space to engage in their self-selected pursuits, even if they sometimes make us adults nervous. At the same time, it can be difficult it is to break the habit of constantly cautioning children with "Be careful!"

Adult warnings to "be careful" are redundant at best and, at worst, become focal points for rebellion (which, in turn, can lead to truly hazardous behavior) or a sense that the world is full of unperceived dangers that only the all-knowing adult can see (which, in turn, can lead to the sort of unspecified anxiety we see so much of these days). Every time we say "be careful" we express, quite clearly, our lack of faith in our children's judgement, which too often becomes the foundation for self-doubt.

Sometimes people ask me about alternatives, such as saying, "pay attention to your body." For me, "pay attention" has the same flaws as "be careful." They are both commands that give children only two choices -- obey or disobey. On top of that, they are both quite vague. Better, I think, are simple statements of fact that allow children to think for themselves; specific information that supports them in performing their own risk assessment. This reminds me of the "good job" or "well done" habit many of us adults have acquired, in that we know we ought not do it, but can't help ourselves. So, in the spirit in which I offered suggestions for things we can say instead of "good job",  here are some ideas for things to say instead of "be careful."

"That's a skinny branch. If it breaks you'll fall on the concrete."

"I'm going to move away from you guys. I don't want to get poked in the eye."

"That would be a long way to fall."

"When people are swinging high, they can't stop themselves and might hit you."

"That looks like it might fall down."

"Tools are very powerful. They can hurt people."

"I always check to make sure things are stable before I walk on them."

"Sometimes ladders tip over."

"You're all crowded together up there. It would be a long way to fall if someone got pushed."

"When you jump on people, it might hurt them."

"You are testing those planks before you walk on them."

"That's a steep hill. I wonder how you're going to steer that thing."

When we turn our commands into informational statements, we leave a space in which children can think for themselves, rather than simply react, and that, ultimately, is what will help children keep themselves safe throughout their lives.

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Monday, November 18, 2019

Considering The World As Others See It

The modern novel as an art form gained a toe-hold the early 1700's, with novels like Robinson Crusoe reaching a mass audience. They advanced gradually as a source of entertainment through that century as works like Pamela and Tom Jones became popular. But the novel really found its stride when writers like Jane Austen picked up their pens in the early decades of the 19th century, reaching a climax in the Victorian era with authors like Dickens, Eliot, Hardy, and the Bronte sisters, not to mention Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, Flaubert and Balzac, Hawthorne and Melville. Looking back, one can hardly imagine a greater artistic flowering, yet the novel was widely regarded as a "rot." Not the necessarily the works of the authors I've mentioned, which were begrudgingly considered to have merit, but novels in general, the kinds the masses were consuming, especially young women. They were condemned as, at best, a waste of time, and at worst the gateway to mental illness. Well-intended parents were known to forbid their daughter novels while the girls predictably sought to hide their "dirty" habit.

Most parents today would be thrilled if their children were "addicted" to novels. We can think of few things more wholesome and educational. In contrast to our Victorian counterparts, we even lecture our children on the importance of reading books, any books, indeed anything, except, of course, the reading they really want to do, which is the rot found on the internet.

Scientists now tell us that we're right and the Victorians were wrong. Reading novels is good for us. Novel reading is an important socializing influence in that fiction readers have been found to be better able to understand and empathize with their fellow humans. Although we're wrong in the sense that all reading is not equal, at least when it comes to acquiring these social and emotional benefits: those who read genre fiction or non-fiction showed no improved capabilities in this area. It must be literacy fiction, which tends to focus more on the psychology of it's characters, rather than just exciting plots or the conveyance of facts and opinions (not to suggest that these sorts of reading are not valuable in other ways).

Preschool aged children, of course, do not read novels, but their dramatic play serves the same function as reading literary fiction does for adults. As they try on new costumes, they are trying on new personas, which helps them explore and better understand other people's minds, one of the most important skills we can have as social animals. Fiction, theater, or dramatic play allows us to consider the world as others see it, to put ourselves in shoes that are not our own. It's one of the ways we come to understand one another and is an avenue toward considering how the world could be different, which is always the first step in changing it. And ultimately, it's only through a better understanding others that we come to better understand ourselves.

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Friday, November 15, 2019

"We Protect People"

There were always kids in Woodland Park's 4-5's classes who spent large portions of their days together playing "super heroes." They might call it something different, like good guys, bad guys, Star Wars, or Ninjas, but the essentials of the game remained the same: they formed a team, negotiated their roles, discussed in detail just how powerful they were, then race about talking tough, making fierce faces, and striking assertive poses.

And just as predictably, there were always some children who came to fear the super heroes.

It's tempting for adults to simply impose restrictions on the super hero play in defense of the children who are afraid, but I think that misses an opportunity for the children to learn about what it means to be members of a community. And it begins with the all-hands-on-deck class meetings that we call circle time.

One year, several children had expressed their fears, both directly to me and through their parents, so when the children assembled for circle time, I wanted to steer the conversation that way. We started off talking about our classroom rules, the agreements the children have made with one another. I was prepared to broach the subject of super heroes myself, but was hoping that it would emerge from the kids. I knew that one girl, H, via her mother, had been attempting to summon up the courage to suggest an outright ban on the super hero play, and this was the day.

I said, "H has something to say," and she replied, "No super hero play."

There was a moment of dead silence as her words sank in. Then the super heroes, their expressions full of shock and outrage, raised a chorus of, "Nooooo," which was followed by a more scattered chorus of, "Yesssss." It was obvious that we were not going to reach consensus on this rule, but that wasn't the point: the point was to have the discussion. Once we'd settled down we took turns making our cases, starting with those who were feeling afraid. Several classmates joined H. As they spoke up I watched the superheroes who were paying attention the way one does when the topic is of utmost importance. As they listened to their classmates say that the super heroes frightened them, their expressions turned from outrage to what I can only describe as dismay.

When it was the super heroes' turn to talk, one of them said, emotion rising in his throat, "But we're good guys." Another said, "We protect people." They were simply astonished that they had been so misunderstood. They were genuinely shocked that anyone to be afraid of them.

The discussion that followed was long and rambling. We knew we couldn't all agree to H's suggested rule, but we talked about things we could do like being more aware of one another's feelings, being more direct with one another about how we were feeling, and figuring out better ways to share the space and resources. We learned in that discussion that most of the children were neutral about the super heroes, sometimes joining them, but not every day. They had concrete suggestions, but perhaps their most important contribution was to let their friends know that they weren't afraid, which I think helped some of the more fearful children see that there was an alternative to either-or. I didn't check the clock, but it was a long, productive discussion in which the kids learned something about one another: about who we were as a community.

This wouldn't be the last time we needed to talk about this, but it was a good starting point and the parents of the anti-super heroes reported that their children came away feeling much better, empowered even. As for the super heroes, they had been sincere in their desire to not frighten their classmates going forward, even if they sometimes forgot as they immerse themselves in their dramatic play. And we adults now had a concrete reference point for supporting the children as they worked this through.

A few days after our classroom discussion, one of super heroes was running full speed near the swings. A boy standing nearby flinched as he passed, which caught our caped crusader's eye. He slowed briefly and said, "I'm sorry I scared you," and his friend replied, "That's okay. I was only scared for a second." Like I said, we're going to be working on this for the rest of the school year, but man that was awesome.

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Thursday, November 14, 2019

How To Change The Games Children Play

In the days following the horrors of 9/11, several of the children at our daughter's preschool began to fly toy airplanes into block towers, over and over. They were clearly, through their play, processing the events. Every day, children are doing this as they play, preparing themselves in one way or another for the world they perceive awaits them. Hunter-gatherer children tended to play games of hunting and gathering. Contemporary children play games of housekeeping or driving cars or shopping.

Sometimes the "purpose" of their play is obvious to us, even if it isn't conscious on their part. The girl who plays hospital games in the weeks after her own visit to the emergency room obviously isn't telling herself that she needs to "process," but she is driven to it nevertheless, and it shows up in her freely chosen activities. Perhaps more often, however, the child's "purpose" isn't as evident, leaving thoughtful adults to ponder since the children themselves cannot tell us. If you ask a child who is, for instance, playing superhero, why he is drawn that particular game, he's likely to respond, "Because it's fun!" which is likely true even if it's not the whole story. Most of us would agree that there is something about being powerful or masculine or protecting others at the bottom of this type of play.

Some argue that a child playing superhero is just imitating something he's seen on TV and that if we took away his access to the boob tube he would stop playing the game. Maybe, but that doesn't explain why even the children I've taught who don't have television often play similar types of power games, even if they call themselves something else, like "bad guys" or "firefighters." No, the fact that this type of play comes up year-after-year, mostly among boys, tells me that they are not merely aping media messages, but are rather seeking to understand or practice something deeper that they don't just want, but need to understand, or for which they must practice. I would make the same assertion about girls, and it's mostly girls, who play princess games: we might personally reject the cult of feminine beauty, but the ubiquity of this sort of play across the years tells us that it is something that is "important" to process or practice or understand.

When we see "violent" games, when we see games based on superficial beauty, it's tempting for some of us to try to put a lid on it, or to steer children away from it, or to somehow create environments in which this sort of play doesn't emerge. As a young parent, I misguidedly and half unconsciously attempted to raise our daughter as a "tomboy," dressing her in overalls, buying her Hot Wheels, taking her to sporting events. I'll never forget the day as a two-year-old when she came across a heavily bejeweled princess crown at a friend's house, popped it on her head, looked me in the eye, and said, "You don't know what girls do," then proceeded to wear a crown, daily, for the next three years.

I see the same phenomenon happening these days with technology and smart phones in particular. Almost every school in America has instituted limitations on their use. The nation of France has recently outright banned children under 15 from using their phones at school "amid fears that students were becoming too dependent on and distracted by their smartphones." I have no doubt if given the choice, most school-aged children would chose their phones over the adult-directed curriculum from which they are being "distracted." What's happening on their phones is, from their perspective, much more important. And as to becoming dependent? Look around. The whole world is becoming dependent. The kids are just trying to process, understand or practice for the future, just as those kids flying toy airplanes into block towers were trying to make sense of the real world events that had come into their lives.

I'm not arguing that we should allow children access to new technology willy-nilly or that there is nothing we can do about violent games or beauty games. What I am saying is that children will always show us the future, as they perceive it, through their play. And children are incredibly adept at seeing through our envision-a-better-world smokescreens to zero in on what skills, habits, and knowledge they will need to live in the real world, and then to set out to understand or practice or process it, often to our chagrin. In one sense, when children play, they are holding up a mirror. If we don't like what we see, it's on us to make changes, both personally and societally. We will know if we've succeeded only when the children change the games they play.

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