Friday, March 26, 2021

Setting Ourselves, and Others, Free

I want the children themselves to tell me their stories, in their own words, reticences, giggles, and gestures. 

I want to listen to them, not just with my ears, but my combined senses; the one comprehensive sense which is, in the end, the only way to really "listen" to anything. 

I want to know them, as much as I can, as they know themselves, not filtered through the "knowing" of the important adults in their lives. That this is how I should strive to know all people is not lost on me, it's just simpler with young children. I suppose it's because they lack the layers of subterfuge and denial with which most of us adults armor ourselves. We call it "innocence," but I think it's also freedom: freedom from the shame that plagues too many of us. What will the others think if they know who I really am? That's not a question young children know to ask until they are taught it through the judgements of others. We teach it when we criticize and equally when we follow them around chirping, "Good job" or when we continue to urge them on even when they've clearly told us "No, this is not for me."

We teach children to be ashamed in both overt and subtle ways. It's too bad, of course, because lessons learned through shame are often crippling. They are lessons we spend our lives trying to either overcome or, more commonly, hide away in the dark where they fester, making them even more shameful, secrets we intend to take to the grave.

I'm all for common courtesy, but when we slap their hands for picking their noses or scold them under our breath for singing too loudly in church, I worry that we are using shame like a tool, in the same way we use "poor grades" as a tool. There is no doubt that shame can "teach," but at what cost?

I've done my share of shaming, as a parent, a teacher, and as a human being. Perhaps it's unavoidable. Perhaps shame is an important evolutionary trait, hardwired into us, the most social of animals. I imagine it's a good thing that I feel shame when I've hurt someone else, intentionally or not, that this shame causes me to apologize and make amends. Shame that emerges from an understanding of the harm I've caused is a useful, even positive thing, but it all changes when someone seeks to impose shame upon me, as we adults so often do to young children.

Honestly, as I write this, I'm feeling shame at the shame I've imposed on others because I can see that it was always my own shame, not theirs. Always. Yet I've made it theirs, which is shameful.

This is why I want the children themselves to tell me their own stories in their own words, reticences, giggles, and gestures. This is why I strive to "listen" to understand rather than judge. When they tell me their stories, they help me hear my own, without shame, because they are listening without judgement as well; listening with the one comprehensive sense which is, in the end, the only way to really "listen" to anything. It's through this kind of full-body listening that we can set ourselves, and others, free.


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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