Wednesday, March 24, 2021

How Free and Equal Humans Are Meant to Live Together

Two freshly-minted three-year-olds were playing on the floor, not together, but near one another. I was lying amidst them, fiddling with whatever came to hand. The boy picked up a toy that was meant to impersonate a tiny version of the cast iron hand pump we have on our playground. After a moment, the boy said, perhaps to me, "Hey, it's a pump!"

The girl responded, "I want it."

That's what we had been encouraging kids to do for months, ask for things they want rather than just snatching them. The boy continued playing with the toy pump without saying a word. I briefly considered saying, "When you're finished with that, she wants it," but let the urge pass. The boy silently played with the toy for 30 seconds longer, then unceremoniously handed it to her. I was going to say something about that as well, some words of acknowledgement or even praise, but again thought better of it.

A five-year-old once told me, unprompted, as if it was something he'd given a lot of thought, "I don't like doing things people tell me to do. I like thinking of them myself and then doing them." Of course, that's how we all feel, right through our lives.

Adults say entirely too much to children, most of it either commands, which no one likes, or blather, to which no one listens. For whatever reason, we seem to feel that children are not listening simply because they don't respond to things like well-trained dogs. When the boy hadn't instantly acknowledged the girl's statement that she wanted the toy by saying, "I'm using it" or "You can use it when I'm done" or by simply handing it over, I was sorely tempted to say something, to amplify or translate or suggest. It was almost as if that silent space left after the girl said "I want it" was there for me to fill with blather.

And I know that whatever I said would have been blather because by remaining silent, I discovered that not only had the boy been listening, but it had prompted him to think. In that space of silence, he considered the information she had provided him, thought of what to do, and did it. He needed no reward from me, no pat on the back or "Good job," no benevolent overlord wielding carrots, sticks, commands, or blather.

This is how free and equal humans are meant to live together: thinking of things themselves and doing them, and that is its own reward.


For the past 20 years, I've been working in a place that puts the tri-cornered relationship of child-parent-educator at the center, and over that time I've learned a great deal about how to work with families to create the kind of village every child needs and deserves. I'm proud to announce that I've assembled what I've learned into a 6-part e-course called Partnering With Parents in which I share my best thinking on how educators can and should make allies of the parents of the children we teach. (Click this link to register and to learn more.) Register now to receive early bird pricing. Discounts are available for groups.

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