Monday, March 29, 2021

The Pursuit of Happiness




I've asked thousands of parents the question, "What are your goals for your child?" It's something a lot of us ask at the beginning of a school years or when we are first getting to know a family. Far and away, the top answers have been some version of, "I just want my child to be happy," or "I just want my child to love learning." These are the answers I expect, especially from first time parents. 

The good news is that their children already love learning, they were born that way, so no problem there. Our only job, and it's made far simpler by a play-based curriculum, is to do no harm.

Happiness is, of course, another matter. It's the only emotion that tends to disappear the moment you become aware of it. It's a tricky, personal, and ephemeral thing, something we spot in others, but when we ourselves are happy we daren't look directly at it. It's like those phantom movements in our peripheral vision that Icelanders say are the "hidden people," elves and fairies and whatnot, who flee when you turn their way. Because of this phenomenon, Aristotle asserted that the only way humans can ever know if they've lived a happy life is in hindsight, from the perspective of our death beds, looking back over it all. This, of course, doesn't mean that we ought not pursue happiness, only that we have to accept that the pursuit is the most important part of that project, which is, at bottom, what self-directed learning is all about: the pursuit of happiness.

So I have no problem assuring parents that their preschool goals will be met. Their children will continue to love learning because they will be free to pursue happiness within the context of a community. The problem is that we too often fail to understand that the love of learning and the pursuit of happiness must be ends unto themselves, not means to an end. It's when we attempt to wrangle these highest of goods into the service of some more prosaic result, like a grade or a score or a certificate or a job, that we begin to undermine the joy of learning, replacing it with the avoidance of corrective sticks. It's when we begin to make the pursuit of happiness into a hopeless chase after carrots that are always dangled just out of reach.

No wonder so many children wind up finding school to be a disappointment: it is the place where they are taught that learning is a chore and something like happiness must be found in the praise of adults.

"I just want my child to be happy." "I just want my child to love learning." Laudable goals, indeed, the highest. My goal for these parents is that they come to see that the only way to get there is to set their children free and to trust them to know what to do with their freedom.

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As preschool educators, we don't just educate children, but their families as well. 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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