Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Love Is The Only Revolutionary Force

Psychologist Carl Jung wrote, "Where love rules there is not will to power; and where power predominates, there love is lacking." This, I think, is an important thing upon which modern educators in general, and early childhood educators in particular, could stand to meditate.

I strive to place love at the center of my practice, as I know is true of most of my colleagues. We genuinely love the children we teach and they love us. I've witnessed this to be widely true wherever I've visited. It's perhaps our greatest reward (because it sure isn't financial). When it goes as it should, we spend our days loving and being loved, swimming in it, breathing it. Our job is to keep them safe and to otherwise simply be there, loving them and helping them as they figure out how to connect with, to love, more people. This is the foundation of not just all learning, but all living in the fullest sense of the word.

When I look at our habitual idea of schooling, I see a lot of loving individual teachers working in a system in which love has been pushed to the side, and where power therefore predominates. From our earliest years, we are judged by our educational system, one that pretends to know what is normal and to then act to enforce it. The French philosopher Michel Foucault sees this as an exercise in power, a form he calls "normalization," in which our souls are imprisoned by expectations and standards and this has characterized our schools right up to our current era of high stakes standardized testing which has come to dominate the educational experience for most of our children.

It's a system of power that appears largely designed to create "normal" children rather than educated ones, where those that cannot bend to the will of the system are labelled, then subjected to increasingly overt forms of power, right up to the use of force, which is ultimately a failure of power. They must either "learn" how to behave or find themselves rejected. It's a power, however, that isn't derived so much from the threat of force as from the capacity to label: this one is "normal" and that one is "abnormal," and it can only exist as a poor replacement for the love that should stand at the center, but has been pushed aside.

I watched a baby on my flight home from visiting our daughter in New York over a long weekend, and what I saw was a free human. Sure, he was 100 percent dependent upon the adult humans in his life, yet because love clearly stood at the center of his relationships with those important adults, this dependency didn't translate into them exerting power over him. Instead of "behaving," he shouted when he felt the urge, grabbed whatever was within reach, bounced furiously, cried from his belly, and everyone around him considered this to be "normal." You do too. This is just what babies do. By the same token, when his two-year-old brother whined or cried or kicked the seats in front of him, people around me shook their heads and pursed their lips, as if to say, "This mother needs to gain control over her child," to exert power over him. That is to say, this slightly older human cannot be allowed to be free.

Thankfully, this mother on this six hour flight did not replace her love with power, but I couldn't help but reflect that it was, sadly, only a matter of time.

Of course, we are all subject to Foucault's normalized power. We allow society to exert its power over us. We don't shout and cry on airplanes, even when we may often feel like it. And when one of us does "lose it," the rest tend to agree that he ought to be removed from the plane. Although if we think beyond our own comfort and the arbitrary confines of "normal," I expect we can all see how love would be a more appropriate response to that troubled individual than an exercise in power.

I know there are some teachers who have become creatures of the system. I came across them in my own schooling: those who allow their will to power to dominate, who see success in terms of well-behaved, properly drilled students, turning out passing grades and high enough test scores, normal kids prepared for normal lives. Thankfully, most teachers have not lost touch with love and who, despite the demands of the our habitual schools to normalize children, set their love between the children and those demands, putting love first, especially for those who would whine and cry and kick the seats in front of them. These teachers are my heroes.

Our schools are not unique in having replaced power with love. Indeed, it has become the main focus of most of our institutions and professions to label what is normal and what is not, then to work to make as many of us normal as possible, to exert power over not just how we behave, but ultimately who we are.

It upsets me when I think that these free humans that we teach will all too soon find themselves increasingly subject to this normalized power, the systematic hammering down and smoothing out, the judgements and labels.

Ah, but we have love on our side. It is perhaps the only revolutionary force in that it is the only thing that can supplant power. When we celebrate heroes, it is always because they have loved where others would control. It is always because they have chosen to empower rather than exercise power. I am inspired by thinking about all of us preschool teachers out there in the world in our church basements and living rooms, our classrooms and playgrounds, fighting the power by simply loving. They think we are weak, but we are strong. We are the revolutionary force the world needs and we will win when we love.

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Monday, December 30, 2019

Transformative Experiences

As a 24-year-old married man, I was certain that I didn't want to be a parent. My wife felt the same way. We had lives to live, after all. We were the kind of people with places to go, things to do, adventures to have, and none of them involved being parents. I once found myself being harangued (or so it felt) by a colleague, himself a new father, "Until you have children, you're just scratching around on the surface of life. I want to go deeper." And I replied, "You're just digging the same hole everyone else is digging. I'd rather at least try digging somewhere else."

He wasn't the last one to suggest that I would be missing out were I not to have children, my mother being prominent among them. I pretended to listen, but with my mind made up against their evangelism. They were all so earnest, so sincere, so sure of their decision, but, I reasoned, they had no other choice but to be that way: they had made an irrevocable decision and to behave otherwise would be a kind of cruelty to these new lives to which they were now committed. Of course, they had to adopt the position that parenthood was a transformative experience. What repelled me in particular, however, was their condescension that no one could fully appreciate it until they were likewise irrevocably on the other side.

As tends to happen, our child-bearing friends drifted away from us as we collected friends who, like us, chose to remain "free," a world in which it was a given that parents were a self-deluded bunch. We saw them in public, haggard, hair a-tangle. Their children behaved atrociously in restaurants and on airplanes. They were forever scolding through tight lips, obviously right on the edge, as their children whined and cried and misbehaved. If we did reach out to them with social intent for old times sake, everything was dependent upon the reliability of teenaged babysitters and contingent upon saying goodnight at 8 p.m, and the few conversations we had were about poop and pee and vomit. No thank you.

A decade later, we had a child, a perfect baby girl, and discovered that it was, indeed, a transformative experience. And like every parent before us, we had made this irrevocable decision based upon insufficient information, which is the nature of transformation. One moment we were not parents, "free" as we once thought ourselves, and now we were on the other side, finally able, as the evangelists had asserted, to fully appreciate it. Only now did the other parents finally confess to the trials we had previously glimpsed, judgmentally, from the outside. But now we understood. We were, in an instant, new people, dramatically different than we had been before. Better? I don't know about that, but definitely and irrevocably different, so different that we could hardly comprehend the people we had been before.

The term "transformative experience" is one too often surrounded with a lot of woo-woo hoopla, but it is a real and powerful thing. We are always changing, of course, usually gradually, one day at a time, like the way aging works, but a transformative experience comes abruptly. Sometimes they are thrust upon us, like when a loved one dies unexpectedly, but just as often we choose them, even if unconsciously, through the decisions we make. On the other side, we are different people, we have changed, we have transformed. And while I would argue that change is necessary, it is not always good, or at least not all good. The haggard, hair a-tangle parent is as real as the one who is full to bursting with parental love.

You don't have to have a baby to have a transformative experience. Indeed, anyone who has lived for a few years has had them. Young children have them all the time, moments when they suddenly discover new things about the world, new ways of being, new ways to interact. And these experiences are usually challenging and difficult, but they are also what keeps us intellectually alive and vibrant as we figure out this new world in which we find ourselves.

Too often, as we grow older, we stop choosing our transformations. We grow afraid of the insufficient information, we come to fear the inevitable difficulty, we grow increasingly cautious about change. The problem is that we then leave the field open for the transformative experiences to find us instead of us finding them. Much better, I think, is to keep choosing to leap into the new, to continue to make irrevocable decisions with insufficient information. That's how we renew ourselves. That's what transformative experience is all about.

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Friday, December 27, 2019

That Older Me Is A Real Jerk

As a boy, I dreamt of being a super hero, Batman in particular. I suppose I would have rather been Superman with his flying and extraordinary strength, but I understood enough about reality to know that those powers were impossible, whereas the more mortal abilities of Batman actually seemed attainable. Children dream all kinds of things, but even then, even as I planned my future as a costumed crusader, I limited myself according to what I knew about how the world worked. It would be several years before I came to realize that even the abilities of Batman were beyond mere mortals.

I wonder sometimes if that dream of being a force for good in the world didn't in some way inform my choice to become a teacher. I mean, after all, I'm still the same human being who wanted to be Batman, just older and wiser. Of course, that boy me might look at things quite differently. If he were able to see the man I've become, he might well feel that I've sold out my younger self. Not only am I not Batman, but I'm not a professional baseball player, I'm not a hippie living in a free love back-to-nature commune, and I'm not my generation's greatest novelist, all of which were aspirations of younger versions of me; all of which are dreams that I've let die in order to become this rather ordinary middle-aged man, at least as I imagine I would have viewed myself through the various lenses of my youth.

This version of me, the one sitting here in my living room, writing these words, is not disappointed with myself. Indeed, I'm proud of myself, but there is room for improvement, of course. I still have dreams, dreams that my even older self may well look back on with the sort of tolerant chuckle we world-wise adults bestow upon the dreams of children. And right now, as I sit here, I can't help but think of that older me is a real jerk.

Who is he to poo-poo my dreams? And who am I to chuckle about anyone's dreams of becoming Batman? I'm just some old man who doesn't even exist without those impossible dreams of youth, a man who has settled and compromised and sold out. And I've killed dreams. I am, we all are, from the perspective of our younger selves, dream killers. But what are we to do? Are we to ignore reality? Are we to blind ourselves to the fact that we don't have the requisite skills or drive to become professional baseball players? Are we to cling to our dreams of flying even in a world in which that is impossible? Are we, in the interest of not being jerks, to continue to cling to every silly dream we've ever had?

Some people did become professional baseball players. Some people do live on free love back-to-nature communes. Someone is my generation's greatest novelist. Dreams do come true, but for most of us, most of the time, growing up is a process of learning to dream new dreams, more dreams, dozens and hundreds and thousands of dreams. Indeed, human dreams are seeds that we plant throughout our lives. Some of them never sprout, some grow for a season, and some grow into something we could have never imagined. It's not the dreams themselves, but the dreaming of them that matters: it's from our dreams that the world emerges. This is our collective dream. If you don't like it, dream some more, and don't you dare, ever dismiss the dreams of others, even if those dreams were those of one of your younger selves. You are made from those dreams.

As far as I know, no one has yet managed to become Batman, but I find as I sit here this morning, a rather ordinary middle-aged man writing these words, that there is still a part of me that hasn't completely given up on that dream.

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Thursday, December 26, 2019

The Promise Of Next Year

Last week, I went to our storage locker to fetch our holiday items only to find that there had been a flood some months before and the facility had moved our belongings to a new locker. In the process, they had managed to lose our holiday decorations. It's likely that they will turn up again. They were probably just stashed in the wrong locker and will be returned when it's discovered. After all, it's really just several boxes of junk to anyone else. Of course, to us it's a heartbreaking loss. Many of those things have been part of our family's celebrations for more than three decades. Some go back farther than that.

I spent the morning feeling down in the dumps about it, but rallied on the idea that, in fact, I'd been putting off the decorating until the last minute because it had been looming like a bit of a chore anyway. The rest of the family was disappointed as well. We spent some time together discussing the things we had lost, remembering favorite ornaments, and retelling some of our family stories. And then, in the spirit of making the best of a bad situation, we decide to treat this holiday like a clean slate: no decorating at all. We were even going to forego gift wrapping. Yesterday morning, we exchanged gifts and then, in imitation of our Jewish friends, we went to see the latest movie version of Little Women followed by Chinese food in the International District. It was a simple, warm, family day, one I wouldn't at all mind repeating.

If the lost decorations turn up in the meantime, I expect we'll return to our old traditions next year, but if not we've planted the seeds of a new one. We're getting together with the extended family this morning, Boxing Day, which is the second year of another break from tradition. I'd be lying if I didn't say that there isn't a bit of melancholy mixed into it all, this leaving behind of things we had come to expect, even to rely upon, but it's not the overriding emotion. The commitment to being together is stronger than that. My only truly sad Christmas was the year that my wife and I had just moved to Germany and spent the day at a ski resort amongst strangers. We all know that it's not the bright lights or the gifts or the stockings that make these wintertime celebrations meaningful: it's the being together, the knowing that we will be together. And when we're not together, when we can't be together, there is this implied promise of next year.

These traditions and rituals are no small things. They are important to us because of the promises of which they are woven, promises that carry on through years, decades, and generations. They change of course, they must, but the promise remains at the center, the simple, hopeful promise of being together next year.

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Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Summoning Her Courage

The girl was standing on a table near the entry gate to the playground contemplating the distance to the ground. Her friends had already jumped off, leaving her behind in their pell mell downhill dash. She had seen her friends do it. They had landed on their feet, they had not fallen, they had not been hurt, yet she wasn't so sure about herself. If she was going to jump, she was going to have to take a chance, which is, to act without sufficient information. She was frozen there, right on the edge, not yet willing to jump and not yet willing to give up on the jump.

This is the human condition in a nutshell. There are the things we do, the predictable things, the things that we can do in our sleep. There are the things we don't do because they seem unpleasant or downright hazardous. And then there are those things we want to do, but there are enough unknowns that we are frightened, often into the sort of frozen state of this girl standing at the table's edge.

If the girl was going to jump, she would be taking a chance. In her mind there was a fairly equal opportunity for joyful success or painful failure.

The poet and author Marge Piercy wrote, "All human acts are committed on insufficient information."  As the girl stood there trying to summon the courage to leap off into the unknown, I was tempted to call out to her, "Go for it!" or to walk over and offer my hand, but she wasn't asking for help. Indeed, she was deeply focused on the moment, wrestling with her doubts, summoning her courage, dealing with the fact of her insufficient information.

In the end, she elected to climb cautiously down from the table. This too was a human act, one undertaken with insufficient information. Once back on the ground, however, she raced after her friends, joining them at the bottom of the hill, once more a part of their game. She may never return to take that chance, but she will take chances because to be human is to have insufficient information and to act nevertheless. And it's from these moments, in large measure, that we later, in the clear vision of hindsight, are able to piece together the story of our lives.

 I've published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you! 

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Monday, December 23, 2019

The Darkness is Passing

I've been commuting to and from work in the dark for the last couple weeks. I’d have to say that the short winter days are one of the most challenging aspects of life in the northern tier, but things are turning around. The Winter Solstice occurred in Seattle on Saturday at 8:19 p.m., marking the end of our ever-longer nights and the return of light.

Not to lessen the significance of Christmas, Hanukkah or any of the other festivals of lights, but this astrological event is the original reason for the season. The Earth is tilted on its axis at, on average, a 23.5-degree angle and today is when the North Pole is farthest from the sun, causing it to appear to rise and set in the same place. We call it the first day of winter, and while the days will now grow longer by increments until the Summer Solstice in June, the average temperature of the “top” part of the globe will continue to drop as the oceans slowly lose the heat they still store from the warm summer months.

Humans can hardly think without resorting to metaphor and there is none more profound than this. It’s not an accident that this is a time for reflection as well as celebrating new beginnings. It’s not an accident that we seek out the people who mean the most to us, family and friends, those we love and without whom we live in perpetual winter. It’s not an accident that Christians retell the story of the birth of a child, the son of God, the light of hope in a darkened world. It’s not an accident that we give one another gifts and wish each other merriness, happiness and cheer – the darkness is passing, buck up, light is returning, have hope.

Winter is often used as a metaphor for death, but the comparison is superficial. The trees may not have leaves, the forests may have been temporarily emptied by hibernation and migration, there may be fewer children on the play grounds and at the beaches, and it may stay that way for some months to come, but we shouldn't mistake stillness for death.

The word “Solstice” comes from the Latin phrase for “sun stands still.” We spend the rest of the year in motion, moving forward, making progress. But if we can hold still long enough to listen, we hear winter whispering to slow down, take stock, cut back, rest, tend to the core of what makes life worthy of its name. All is calm. All is bright.

Even the sun stands still.

I've published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!

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Friday, December 20, 2019

A Little More On What The Research Tells Us To Do

Last Friday, I wrote a short post entitled What the Research Tells Us to Do in which I provided links to articles about research supporting the primacy of play-based education for young children, and all of those links provided even more links to the actual research for those inclined to go directly to the source.

It was a well-read, well-received piece, one that has circulated far beyond my normal readership. I know this because I've started to receive the sort of angry pushback that tells me it has transcended the confines of my normal sphere of like-minded readers. Most of it has been of the "says you!" variety, not supported by anything other than feeling offended that anyone would dare challenge the status quo. There were several who described themselves as some sort of school administrator, people who I assume are defensive because they are professionally invested in the sort of preschool reading programs or one-size-fits-all curricula that the actual evidence refutes. I understand that. It's upsetting to be told, especially by some preschool teacher on the internet, that you've been doing it wrong. I doubt that any of them actually clicked on the links: it's easier to simply not know.

One person, however, accused me of "cherry picking" the data, asserting that he could do that too, implying, I guess, that he had is own mountain of research supporting an academic, standardized approach to early childhood education. He gave me no way to contact him, so I'll post this here on the off chance that he's still around: If you have access to actual research to support academic, standardized education for young children (or children of any age for that matter), please send it to me.

I've been blogging here for ten years, but I've been reading everything I can get my hands on about early childhood education for much longer and I have never come across credible research that did not conclude that play should stand at the center of a child's education. Certainly, there is room for debate over the nature of that play and the value of direct instruction as an adjunct to play. For instance, if it is important that children learn something specific, like how to properly brush their teeth or how to safely evacuate their homes in case of a fire, the adults may need to take matters more in hand, but I know of no reputable research that suggests that direct instruction should, as it is in most American schools, form the basis for a child's education. I've never seen anything that supports the sort of drill-and-kill academic emphasis being thrust upon children today.

Good scientists are always looking for evidence that challenges their theories, and in that spirit I welcome anything from anyone that counters the overwhelming evidence supporting play-based education for preschoolers. But as Carol Black writes in her incredible essay A Thousand Rivers, "collecting data on human learning based on children's behavior in school is like collecting data on killer whales based on their behavior at Sea World." I will naturally be skeptical of this sort of data, the kind that proves itself based upon the illusion of learning rather than actual learning, but I will consider it, even if it is, by necessity "cherry picked."

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Thursday, December 19, 2019

Where We Are Happiest

In the constant turmoil of our cells -- in the irrepressible plasticity of our brains -- we find our freedom. ~Jonah Lehrer

According to new research, it seems that anti-depressant medications work by stimulating neurogenesis, which is the division of neurons. In other words, they make depressed people feel better by creating new brain cells. When our brains stop growing, we tend to feel depressed and newly born brain cells make us happy.

Up until the 1990s, the leading theory held that the human brain's store of neurons was fixed from about the age of five-years-old, that brain cells didn't continue to divide like the rest of the cells in the human body, but we now know that our brains and bodies can really be considered a single organ in which all of the cells are continually being renewed. This means that we are always, each of us, in the process of evolving into something new.

The condition that seems to slow neurogenesis (with the caveat that all of this research is, by necessity, done on animals) is when we are in a state of "captivity." This makes sense because captivity is generally an environment that doesn't change, which reduces the need to adapt, so brains simply stop adapting. People suffering from depression often talk of feeling "trapped." Up until quite recently, depression was mainly found in adults, but its incidence among children, even very young children, has spiked in the last few decades. This seems to be connected to a loss of the relative freedom that previous generations enjoyed: children are being subjected to developmental inappropriate academic pressures unheard of in the past and their opportunities to play, especially outdoors without the restrictions of ceilings and walls, has been greatly reduced.

Of course, freedom is an abstract concept: who but the dead can claim to be truly free? We are all always confined in some way, by laws or morals or the limitations of our own minds and bodies. So perhaps freedom isn't the right word to use in discussing the opposite of captivity. Perhaps a better antonym for our purposes is something like "variety" or "change" or "re-birth." If we've evolved to keep evolving, to renew ourselves, at least at the cellular level, then it stands to reason that we would be happiest (another abstract concept) when engaged in an ever-evolving environment.

The environment of the classroom -- a place of sitting still, of listening, of repetition, and of rote -- is a relatively unchanging place, one that moves methodically, that allows only certain proscribed forms of engagement, that cuts out everything that isn't deemed "instructional." It assumes a one-way flow from the adult to the child. We have evolved to evolve so most of the children most of the time still manage to adapt, neurogenesis continues to take place, although I suspect at a much slower rate. Alarmingly, however, more and more children are failing to adapting. We are now up to one in five children between the ages of 3 and 17 who are suffering from some form of mental illness, such as depression and anxiety (depression's close cousin), and the percentage is on the rise.

If the disease is caused by an artificially static environment, of captivity, then the cure must be change, variety, and re-birth. Thankfully, we know what to do. Classic, unfiltered childhood play provides the perfect conditions most necessary for neurogenesis, which is brain growth, to occur. Our greatest "freedom" is found while engaged in self-selected actives in open-ended ways, continually adapting to our world and the people we find there. And that, not accidentally, is also where we are happiest.

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Wednesday, December 18, 2019

The Real Work Of Being A Parent

When parents complain, "He doesn't listen to me" what they really mean is that their kid doesn't do what they want them to do when they want them to do it. Believe me: they are listening to you. They are almost always listening to you. You just disagree with what they opted to do, or continue doing, after listening to your words.

Of course, some of the time, they simply don't understand us, they're not ready to "get" what we're saying to them, like when I talk to young two-year-olds about knocking down other people's block constructions, but more often than not they are listening, then choosing something else.

We know they're listening because our own words come back to us, channelled through them, often days or weeks or even months later. I remember when my own daughter first cursed traffic from her carseat. We know they're listening because they repeat word-for-word, usually at a holiday party right in front of everyone, the mean joke we made about the harvest of hair growing from Aunt Millie's nose. I know a child's been listening when she can repeat, word for word, the argument her parents had that morning over a piece of dropped toast.

We know they are listening when they insist on wearing their unicorn bicycle helmet ice skating, like a four-year-old did, saying, "I'm going to wear my helmet because I might really fall instead of almost."

We know they are listening when they turn to us and say, like a three-year-old did yesterday, "When someone does something mean to me I talk to them to stop."

We know they are listening when they are courteous to their friends, like a two-year-old was earlier this week when he said, "Hello Anna. My name is Elliott. Let's play!"

And we know they are listening when they put their arm around a sobbing friend, like one two-year-old year old did to another, saying softly into his ear, "You're crying about something. I'll take care of you."

They are always listening. Not just to the words we say to them, but those we say in their presence to others. That is their real classroom. When we adults take that seriously, that's when our children begin to make us better people, the kind who think about the words they say and the tones we use with the people in our lives. They make us work to become the people we've always wanted to be if only because that's the sort of person we want them to be.

Children don't learn anything from obedience other than how to command and obey, a dubious education at best. They learn almost everything else they learn from us by listening (and watching, of course). Real learning requires processing, repetition, time, and experience to fully comprehend. It takes place on their schedule, not yours, which is why it can seem as if they are not listening. But they are, know it, and strive to be the person you want your children to be. That's the real work of being a parent.

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Tuesday, December 17, 2019

When We Stop Teaching Children Long Enough For Them To Teach Us

When our daughter Josephine was a toddler, one of our frequent father-daughter outings was to visit art museums. I know this isn't a possibility for every two-year-old, but she was temperamentally capable of looking without touching, moving from room-to-room without running, and generally behaving herself in a way that didn't cause the security personnel to verge on heart attack.

In fact, she is the person who taught me how to enjoy an art museum. Up until the advent of a baby in our lives, I had treated my regular visits to view works of art as a sort of cultural chore, one I found rewarding for sure, but a chore nonetheless. Like most people, I tended to start at the beginning and work my way around the walls, pausing at each canvas to make a study, moving systematically from painting-to-painting, sculpture-to-sculpture, installation-to-installation, getting my money's worth, filling my cultural bucket, which I would later proudly admire being full.

Josephine, however, had other ideas. One of our first museums was the Henry Art Gallery on the University of Washington campus. To my frustration, she chose to move quickly, leading me from room to room, pausing only occasionally to make a comment. "That's a horse!" "Those people are dancing!" "Who is that?" There was one rather macabre piece made from video screens that showed female body parts in a way that made it appear as if the model had been chopped to pieces while still alive. Thankfully, Josephine missed it entirely as we raced past. But she was teaching me how to view art in a gallery. When we were done with the first round, we started again, this time a bit more slowly. Then, after this second circuit, we went around again, and this third time through she saw it.

Artemisia Gentileschi

I was prepared for her questions, for her horror, but instead she approached it with wide-eyed amusement. She blinked at it for a several minutes, then burst out laughing. "That's a funny one!" That was an interpretation that hadn't occurred to me. As a toddler, Josephine was always an enthusiastic and non-judgmental art admirer, never playing the critic, an approach I still strive for today, especially when I find artwork challenging.

We moved on then, returning to our circuit of the rooms for the third, fourth, and fifth times, but now, instead of simply viewing art, we were hunting it, discovering it over and over. "I want to see the horse one again." "Where was the dancing one?" "Let's find the funny one now." Again, it was an approach I'd never before considered, one that seemed to reveal new aspects of the artwork with each go round. "The horse has spots on its tummy." "The dancers are barefoot." "Her mouth looks like a caterpillar!"

Karntakuringu Jukurrpa

We were living downtown, and our most local art museum was the Seattle Art Museum. It was there that she discovered the benches, something I suppose I'd known about, but had never considered in my days of getting my money's worth. We would sometimes sit in front of paintings like one would in front of a television, but instead of a story being told to us, we would tell the story together.

"Why is she looking over there?"

"I don't know. Maybe she's looking at her little girl."

"I think her little girl is telling her mommy that she's hungry."

"I wonder if her mommy is going to make her some lunch."

"No, because she's a queen and queens have to sit on their thrones."

Sometimes that was our entire museum visit, sitting on a bench in front of a painting, musing, which is how Josephine taught me the value of purchasing annual memberships to art museums. Suddenly it was cost-effective to turn into SAM to look at a single piece of art.

Albert Bierstadt

One afternoon, we spent some time with a depiction of Jesus driving the money-lenders from the temple. In the spirit of concocting our own stories, I didn't share the Biblical one with her, although I did tell her the central figure's name. She was disturbed by the image, which seemed to show Jesus angrily flailing a group of cowering men. Her take on the story being told by the painting was not a flattering one, but it clearly made an impression on her. At least once a week for the next couple months, she would spontaneously suggest, "Hey, let's go look at that painting of Jesus whacking those guys." And we did.

Josephine is a grown woman now, but I still visit art museums the way she taught me to do it. With new exhibits, I always start by racing through, taking in the whole show, not worrying that I might miss something. I always then make a second and third round, more slowly each time, finally settling on three or four pieces to really study. I maintain an annual membership to SAM where I visit at least once a month, usually to sit on a bench in front of a single painting, telling myself the story I see there.

Yesterday, I stopped by SAM during my lunch break to sit in front of a single painting for 15 minutes.  And although Josephine now lives in New York, it was like having her with me.

I don't know why I'm telling this story other than, I suppose, because I've been reminded that we can learn a lot when we stop teaching children long enough for them to teach us.

I've published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Monday, December 16, 2019

How We Will Start To Heal Our Children

According the Center for Disease Control and Prevention as many as one in five American children ages 3-17 suffer from some form of mental illness. That's a 500-800 percent increase since the 1950's. 

For those keeping track, this isn't new news even as it continues to be a crisis, one that is largely being addressed through prescription drugs, with precious little being done to identify and address the causes of this generational spike in mental illness. Lest you be tempted to dismiss this as simply a change in our definitions or ability to diagnose mental illness, this holds true even when these things are held constant.

According to psychologist and researcher Peter Gray:

The increase psychopathology seems to have nothing to do with realistic dangers and uncertainties in the larger world. The changes do not correlate with economic cycles, wars, or any of the other kinds of world events that people often talk about as affecting children's mental states. Rates of anxiety and depression among children and adolescents were far lower during the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, and the turbulent 1960s and early '70s than they are today. The changes seem to have much more to do with the way young people view the world than the way the world actually is.

However, as psychologist Steven Pinkler notes in his book Better Angles of our Nature, our chances of being victims of homicide, rape and sexual assault, violence against children, death in war and a whole host of other risks have never been lower:

Violence has been on the decline for thousands of years, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in the existence of our species.

Yet our children are experiencing historically high rates of anxiety and depression, the mental health results of feeling out of control and in danger. This is because our children feel out of control and in danger and we, as a society, are doing it to them.

In her book The Gardener and the Carpenter, psychologist Alison Gopnik, notes that the word "parenting" didn't really exist until the early 1960s. "Parenting" is the verb form of a fundamental relationship that has no parallel in our other important relationships. We don't do "wifing" or "childing" or "friending." We are, rather, wives, children, or friends. We are likewise parents, but it often seems that the whole notion of "parenting" is a failed experiment, one that has directly resulted in this rise in anxiety, fear, and depression, both among parents and children, over the past 70 or so years, without producing much in the way of positive results.

Instead of simply being a parent, we now feel that children must be endlessly shaped, molded, and built, that they must always be "learning," and that if they do not "turn out" according to some pre-determined blueprint of a "successful" adult, we have failed as parents. In the name of parenting, we have shaped our children's lives in such a way that they have very little free time, with every minute of their days scheduled with structured activities, not just during school, but after school and on weekends as well. In the name of parenting we have demanded that our schools increasingly focus on "academic" learning, on homework, on testing, on measuring, on manufacturing. And it comes at the expense of our children being allowed to be children, which is to play, which to choose what they are going to do, which is to be outdoors, unsupervised, with other children, and with the time to just fart around. The result is that our children never get a chance to learn how to be in control of their own lives. No wonder they feel anxious and depressed. And no wonder parents are feeling anxious and depressed as well.

To be a parent is simply to have a loving relationship with your child. As Gopnik writes:

So our job as parents is not to make a particular kind of child. Instead, our job is to provide a protected space of love, safety, and stability in which children of many unpredictable kinds can flourish. Our job is not to shape our children's minds; it's to let those minds explore all the possibilities that the world allows. Our job is not to tell children how to play; it's to give them the toys and pick the toys up again after the kids are done. We can't make children learn, but we can let them learn.

We must learn to stop "parenting" and return once more to simply being parents. When we do that, we will start to heal our children.

I've published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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