Friday, October 22, 2021

Is It Ethical To Prepare Children For The Future?

More than twenty years ago, while touring kindergartens for our preschool-aged daughter, the head of one private school told the assembled parents, "Our community doesn't reflect how the world is, but rather how it ought to be." Specifically, he was referring to the racial and socio-economic make-up of their enrollment and teaching staff, but he could have been talking about their emergent, project-based curriculum as well.

I wasn't yet a teacher, although I believe I'd begun toying with the idea. I liked what I saw of the place, but this idea of creating a school around how we want the world to be rather than how it is intrigued me. After all, the calling card of most schools is that they prepare children for the real world or, sometimes, the future. At the same time, having spent most of my educational life in American public schools, I was aware that a great deal of what I was taught, perhaps most of it, turned out to have nothing to do with the real world I'd been living in since graduation.

Fran Leibowitz once quipped, "I assure you, in real life there is no such thing as algebra," something that has been true in my life. The only algebraic equations I've ever solved were in math classes, whereas cooking, a skill I use every day in real life, was only offered to me as a high school elective for a single quarter. If my school had been interested in preparing me for the real world, cooking would have been on the front burner. Was 15 years of math really necessary to prepare me to for the things I use math for today like managing my money, which really is just basic addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division? 

Or were they preparing me for how "they" want the world to be? I doubt it. Has anyone has ever sat down and envisioned a world in which we spent our days solving for x? The best rationale I've ever heard for requiring all that mathematics education is that it teaches "hard logic," something that can be useful, of course, but if that's the goal, I can think of far more efficient and direct ways to expose children to it. Indeed, as I watch preschoolers at play, I see them practicing the habits of logical thought as they go about their block building and risk assessments.

I've singled out mathematics here, but when passed through the filter of preparing children for the real world, be it for the concrete now or some idealized future, much of what gets explicitly taught in school fails to do either. I've written before about how a truly useful curriculum, one that gives children the opportunity to learn things they will definitely use in their lives would be one centered around cooking, personal finance, basic household maintenance and repairs, auto maintenance, personal relationships, health (including mental health), grooming, social skills, psychology, and philosophy. I'm sure there are other things that could be added to the list, but these are the things I've found to be necessary in the real world and in each of them I am largely self-taught. Certainly, there were adults who pointed me in certain directions, but the learning, the acquiring of the skills was all mine.

What if we, as a society, decided to prepare children for the world as we want it to be? In the case of that one, individual private school, I imagine the head of school, in consultation with his staff, determined what that would mean. But since this approach is one designed to engineer a new and better future through what and how we teach children, the stumbling block will always be the exact definition of "new and better." In a democratic society, this is meant to be the responsibility of all of us, not just the curriculum makers. Would public schools have leave our curricula up to a popular vote of the local community? What about educators who have different ideas about the way the world ought to be? And, at bottom, this approach is about "shaping" children into a particular form, one required for a future determined not by the children themselves, who will live in that future, but rather by adults, who won't. 

I know there is a lot of gray area here, but I can't help but be repelled by either approach. It seems to me that preparing children for the future, which is at bottom what we are attempting to do whatever our approach, is fundamentally unethical, perhaps even immoral. From where I sit, the only ethical approach to education is to support children as they prepare them for their future, and what that means can only be determined by the children themselves.

What if we adults spent less effort trying to manufacture the citizens of tomorrow based upon either the imperfect present or how we would fix it, and more on helping children in front of us learn and achieve what they themselves want to learn and achieve right now? After all, they are the ones responsible for creating the future. They are the ones who will be living in it. Who are we to tell them what will be useful? Who are we to tell them what is a waste of time? This is why I am on the side of self-directed learning, or what we in preschool call play-based learning. 

I assure you, in real life there is no such thing as the future. There is only a single, constantly emerging now, one that we are all creating together. If we are to be ethical educators, the only approach, to my mind, is one in which we stand beside our children as they are right now, leaving the future out of it and supporting our future elders as they make the most of right now.


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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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Thursday, October 21, 2021

"After That They Get To Do Whatever They Want"

A reader recently wrote to me in response to a post: "The way I look at it is that kids owe us their obedience until they're 18, after that they get to do whatever they want."

I wonder how many other people feel this way. I hope not a lot. In fact, I hope this guy was joking or trying to provoke me, but I know better. I don't have to look particularly far or wide to discover people, even people in education, who behave as if they believe this about the relationship between children and adults. After all, it's written into our laws. The so-called "age of majority" is 18 in 48 of the 50 US states. It's 19 in Alabama. It's 21 in Mississippi. Sure, there are caveats and exceptions, but for the most part parents must be quite neglectful or abusive for the courts to grant "emancipation" to a minor.

Likewise, when we look at laws around compulsory schooling, children are required to attend until they are at least 16 right across the US, although most states mandate school (or an alternative, like home schooling) between 5 and 18. And our public schools, where most of our kids wind up, we have enshrined obedience as one of the foundational principles of how they operate.

But even setting the black and white of laws aside, it's rare to find an important adult in a child's life who does not, at least from time to time, put their foot down. We don't even shout, "My way or the highway!" the way we might with another adult because there is no highway for children, only the prospect, even with the most lenient of parents or understanding of educators, of being allowed to "do whatever they want."

And there are a lot of things that children might want to do or be that we forbid. We don't allow children to own property, to choose where they will live, to vote, or to hold a job. The list of forbidden things is long. So, as shocking as this reader's point of view is at first, it's one that is embodied in law and society.

Most of us allow children some freedom. Many even allow them a lot of freedom, especially as they get older and have "earned" it. We tell ourselves we do it for their own good, for their safety. And no doubt, for many of us, we genuinely believe this is what we are doing, but there is no getting around the fact that we are, therefore, teaching our children the dubious habit of obeying those who are in a position of authority. There are many who see no problem with even that. After all, in the real world, it can be dangerous to defy authority.

So what about those other traits we value, like independence and critical thought? These can also be dangerous in the real world, as are creativity, standing up for one's beliefs, curiosity, and, indeed, finding one's own unique way in the world. Much safer is to do as you're told, to be thrifty, to keep your head down, and to avoid questioning too deeply or seeking after any truth that challenges the status quo. 

These are not things that are learned through obedience. Do we really expect that after nearly two decades of contrary training that these traits will emerge spontaneously at some magical moment like their 18th birthday? 

Most of us, as parents at least, strive to execute a slow-motion letting go by trying to walk a balance of allowing a bit more freedom to the children, ideally, with each passing day, until, by the time they are 18, they are ready to be totally free. Teachers, however, cannot afford too much freedom amongst their charges because, at the end of the day, they know that their number one priority, the thing that will most certainly get them reprimanded or fired, is if the children in their care are not safe, be it from physical, emotional, social, or even intellectual harm.

So, as we adults seek to protect children from fortune's blows, we also teach them that danger itself is to be avoided and it is assumed that doing as one is told (or expected or trained) is on the side of safety. Better to stick to the well-trod path, under the street lights, amidst the predictable, placid crowd, taking our pleasures in the form of rewards while avoiding the punishments.

"Don't ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive." ~Howard Thurman

As someone who has been struggling to come alive in the real world for six decades now, I'm finally starting to understand that a life with minimal danger is a life that is, all the way around, minimal. And I think that this is a great sin we commit against our fellow humans, our children: we teach them to avoid risk, yet in the real world, risk stands at the center of everything worth doing, be it climbing a mountain, telling a cherished person, "I love you," or defying authority. It is difficult enough, I've found, to "come alive" even with my adult freedom to do whatever I want.

It's no wonder that so many of the 18 year olds I know have decided to pursue computer programming, business, or accounting upon their emancipation. That's what they've been trained for, the safe course, even when their hearts tell them to be dancers or entrepreneurs or professional skateboarders or any other of the countless ways to come alive in the world. When I was 18, I really wanted to be an artist, a painter, but I chose to study advertising (advertising!) because I perceived it was a career in which I could "safely" (that is, earn a decent income and a certain social status) express myself creatively. 

If we want children to come alive, it seems to me that we're doing it all wrong. After 18 years of doing what they are told, how can we expect them to do anything other than play it safe, that this is the reasonable thing to do, let alone know what it is they want to do with the freedom we grant them upon turning 18?

What would happen if we could come to understand that it is not just morally wrong, but irrational in the largest sense, to assume command of children? What if we saw our adult role as being responsible for them, rather than in charge of them? What if we understood that our role is not to instruct or shape or train children, but rather to support them in discovering what it is that makes them come alive? Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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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Wednesday, October 20, 2021

"It's Not Enough To Love; You Have To Say It"

Implied in the word "teacher," for most people, is the idea of talking. When teachers are portrayed in popular media, we are generally shown in front of a room of dutiful students taking notes as we lecture. Even when early childhood educators are portrayed, more often than not, we're shown as bent over our charges, lips flapping.

The longer I've done this job, however, the more I'm coming to understand that listening is really what we're here to do.

Now, I'm the first to admit that I can be a chatterer, a habit I developed as a baseball player and coach, although to be honest I don't really expect anyone to be listening to my classroom banter because the purpose on the diamond, as it now in the classroom, is to create a sort of unifying rhythm for the "team," rather than to convey any specific information: I could be chanting nonsense syllables and likely get more or less the same effect. That said, every teacher needs to work on something and I suppose that the central one for me is to shut up and hear more.

"Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person they are indistinguishable." ~David Augsburger

You see, more than anything else, that's what we gain when we stop talking and start hearing: our silence becomes a nest of pure love for the child (indeed, any person) with whom we are. When we set aside our agenda, when we step outside those notions of the teacher who "lectures," when our focus is on hearing rather than talking, we are giving that person our greatest gift.

And there is a distinction, I think, between hearing and mere listening. It is more than just creating a silent space in which a child can express himself. And, indeed, it is even more than truly comprehending or sympathizing or empathizing.

It is not enough to love; you have to say it. ~French proverb

It's only when the child knows they are being heard that the act of listening holds the power of love. And the way we let a person know they've been heard is, in their pauses, to repeat back to them their own words, verbatim; not our interpretation or extrapolation of those words, but rather the exact words they use to express themselves. When a child says, "I am sad," for instance, we let them know they are heard, that they are loved, by echoing back to them, "You are sad." And in that echo, we have said both, "I've heard you," and "I love you."


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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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Tuesday, October 19, 2021

The Myth of Selfishness

We can all, under the right circumstances, behave selfishly, but laboratory studies consistently show that when faced with things like resource distribution, say sharing a plate of cookies, we demonstrate what scientists call "inequality aversion." Even children as young as three will divide a cake out equally, and at six would rather throw a slice away rather than allow one person, including themselves, to have more.

Indeed, it appears that we Homo sapiens, whatever else we are, are serious about equality. 

Over my decades in the classroom I've witnessed it myself, even amongst children younger than those studied. Sure, sometimes a kid can behave selfishly, but most of the time I find myself inspired by children's instinctive fairness in social situations. I once, in a misguided attempt to "teach" about fairness, tried to give all of the girls a special jewel, while excluding the boys. The moment the girls realized what was happening, they spontaneously handed their jewels back to me, rejecting them, saying, "It's not fair." They would only accept their jewels if I included the boys. There was nothing for me to teach these children about fairness.

Were I to ask a strangers on the street, however, I'm certain that most would classify selfishness as one of the traits found under the heading of "childishness," along with a tendency toward tantrums and unreasonableness. We know what people mean when they say that someone is behaving "like a big baby." And those of us who work with children know that it's a slur against babies and young children in general.

The worst tantrums I've ever witnessed have been adults who have lost it. Unreasonable demands are far from the exclusive domain of children. And when it comes to selfishness, adults are far and away more likely to behave according to the own self interest even when it clearly harms or disadvantages someone else.

Selfishness is a learned behavior. We are born with a natural aversion to inequality. We are then socialized to want the biggest piece for ourselves, not through explicit teaching because most of us value fairness as a moral value, but because of the way the world is structured, with competition being one of the primary mechanism through which we distribute resources. A truly childish society would never allow billionaires to sit on their piles while millions of others are forced to live hand to mouth.

Many of us go out of our way as early childhood educators to teach equality, fairness, sharing, and turn taking, yet the research is quite clear: we are a species that already understands these things, at least in social situations. Perhaps the children should be our teachers. But we do it, I think, because we know the sad truth is that once the kids are in the world beyond our classroom walls, they will find themselves in an adult world in which selfishness often shows up as a virtue, even as few of us beyond the Ayn Rand inspired dead-enders believe it to be anything other than one of the roots of evil.

Research also tells us that most of us, most of the time, also exhibit "inequality aversion." That finding, which has been replicated countless times, flies in the face of what many of us think we know about humans. We tend to think we live in a competitive dog-eat-dog world, but when we look to our left and look to our right we see fellow humans who are, in their hearts, unselfish and averse to inequality. Anthropologists tell us that this has been the norm for as long as there have been humans, that our species has thrived largely because of our instincts in favor of equality. So how did we get where we are?

I have my theories, but the bottom line is that our hunter-gatherer ancestors didn't tolerate selfishness in others. They would start by teasing and mocking someone who hoarded resources, for example, and if that didn't bring them into line, they would turn to shame and even, in extreme cases, ostracize them. I'm not advocating for shaming others, but I can honestly say that I feel ashamed of myself when I've behaved selfishly. I think most of us do. I don't know if those girls who returned the jewels to me were experiencing shame, but I imagine they would have had they kept the jewels. 

No, it seems to me that the only way that anyone can accept inequality is if they have bought into a story that frames inequality as inevitable or even righteous. In the past, that story might have been about the "divine" nature of the hoarder, which would excuse things like royal rule. Today, the story is that those with the most "deserve" it because they are smarter or have worked harder. These are modern mythologies, of course. We know for a fact that no one has the divine right to more. We know that hard work doesn't necessarily lead to more; if it did, most early childhood educators would be living large. And we all know smart people who have never been able to cash in on their brains, no matter how big. 

Perhaps, if we really value equality and fairness, we ought to be thinking more about the stories we tell, both to children and one another. But one story we can stop telling right now, is the myth of "childishness" because it implies that selfishness is our natural state, which is perhaps the most pernicious myth of all.


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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, October 18, 2021

Building Dens: Practicing For Life As Nomads

Foxes dig, steal, or inherit their dens. I've always thought of fox dens as cozy homes where fox families live, but in reality, very little "living" actually happens inside of them. They are primarily intended for the raising of pups and occasionally for storing food or dodging dangers. It's not uncommon for certain types of foxes of have several dens in their range, moving from one to another as circumstances dictate. They rarely sleep in their dens.

Bird nest, likewise, are not like "homes" as we humans think of them either. And while some birds do return to their former nests to lay eggs and raise hatchlings, most build a new nest for each clutch.

This concept of a single, stable home as a place to eat, sleep, eliminate, recreate, and fornicate is, if not uniquely human, something that sets our species apart. Most other species are more nomadic, even if they spend their lives in a relatively small territory. Indeed, we Homo sapiens were also largely nomadic for the vast expanse of our existence, moving like other animals from den to den, usually within a certain range: the more sparse the resources, the wider the range. We innovated tents and other shelters that could be quickly built using the materials at hand, packing them up or abandoning them. 

I've been thinking about these things lately as my wife and I recently moved into a new home. This is our ninth home together, not counting the many temporary homes we shared in between more decisive moves. Prior to meeting my wife, I'd experienced a dozen previous homes. I'm "above" average in this regard, but the average American still moves to a new home 11.7 times in their lifetime, so given our species' relative longevity and the fact that our young take more than a single season in which to grow into independence, perhaps we aren't so unlike birds and foxes, just on a more extended timeline. Maybe we continue to be more nomadic than we might at first think.

In their book Edgelands, English poets Paul Farley and Michale Symmons Roberts, write, "A den is a secret place, built outside the confines of the adult world. It is a place of retreat, but also a place of togetherness, a social space, that reinforces allegiances and bonds between small groups or gangs." They argue that post-war England was a Golden Age of den building, a time when children were sent outdoors, instead of parked in front of screens, to get out from under their parents' feet. "Time at home indoors contracted to sleeping, and occasional visits for food. The edge lands provided a space of abandonment out of the watchful eye of the adult world, and also provided all of the terrain and materials a child's imagination needed to physically make its own world and reinforce a new sense of self."

I find this fascinating for two reasons. The first being that "home indoors" in this description is much more in keeping with the dens and nests found in the rest of nature -- a place to sleep and to find food in a pinch. The second is that while other species build new habitations to avoid predators and other dangers, human children build dens against the encroachment of adults. This is not, as far as I know, a schema found amongst birds or foxes or any other animal with which I'm familiar.

And it begs the question, Why do human children in the modern world respond to human adults in ways that mimic the ways other species respond to danger? I suppose most of it is classic game playing in the spirit of play fighting or play stalking. If the natural purpose of a den is to protect us, there must be something to be protected from. Adults are the convenient "predators" from which to hide lacking any "proper" predators in the form of older kids or kids from other neighborhoods. Keeping others out is one of the cornerstones of this sort of play.

This is something that makes den play problematic for adults: we tend to value inclusion whereas exclusion is, in part, the underlying purpose of these games. When I started teaching, I was too quick to jump on den play that became, in my view, too exclusionary. We all know that exclusion can become toxic. It wasn't an accident, however, that when I forced my "every one is included" meme on the play, it inevitably broke down. Indeed, much in the way that foxes sometimes dismantle their dens before abandoning them, the kids would often destroy their den before allowing outsiders, but even when they didn't, they almost always abandoned their stronghold with the incursion of others, often constructing another in a different corner of the playground.

Today, I'm more inclined to allow den play to take a more natural course. When children complain about being excluded, I might suggest they build their own den. I'm more inclined to create space for logical arguments like, "It's too small for more people" or "We want to play alone right now." Of course, I'm concerned when this type of play becomes hurtful to others, but I also understand that "we share everything" is unrealistic. My goal is dialog, not tidy resolution. Helping children balance this is an art, not a formula. 

Some years back, a family brought in a huge collection of boxes leftover from their household move. As one might expect, the children claimed individual boxes as their own, each making their own "room." Before long they were combining them into "houses." The houses then formed into a "neighborhood" and then a "city." We played with our city of boxes for weeks as the children moved from house to house, claiming each home for a minute or a day, then moving on to the next, starting again over and over, playing at the nomadic life that is likely in their future.


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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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Friday, October 15, 2021

"I Really Can't Stand Children"

"I'm ashamed to admit it, but I really can't stand children." It's a sentiment I've occasionally encountered upon informing a stranger of the work I do. It always rocks me back on my heels a bit, given that I'm most often surrounded by people who find the company of young children to be preferable to that of their peers.

All adults have theories about children, even those who spend little time with them. After all, in one form or another, we were all once children, so, at a minimum we have those years of experience from which to cobble together our theories about what a child is, does, wants, and needs. A few consider children to be nasty, uncontrollable, hopelessly feral things that will one day, fingers crossed, outgrow it. It's as if they conceive childhood as some sort of larval stage during which these pre-humans feed themselves voraciously of the precious leaves of life before they pupate (perhaps within the chrysalis of university) emerging finally as adults.

As long as they are not cruel to children, I tend to respect these people even as I disagree with them. Their theories cause them to largely avoid children, especially young children, standing aloof in their presence, ignoring them if at all possible. They tend to choose professions and habitations far removed from where children play and when they are compelled to interact with them they do so as if they are little adults, not speaking down to them, employing their full vocabulary, not caring really if these ignorant children comprehend, not even expecting them to respond, at least not in a "rational" manner. Children confound them and, because of their theories, they lack the prying curiosity that attends so many of the interactions children have with other adults.

In most circumstances, children ignore and avoid these adults in return, not out of any sort of animosity, but simply because the indifference is mutual. Quite often, however, young children love, from afar, these adults and not only because they don't pepper them with the usual questions about what they want to be when they grow up and their favorite subject in school. They appreciate that they aren't talked down to or coddled. Their cheeks are not pinched and their heads are not patted. In other words, they perceive they are not being treated as children, but rather as people. And so long as this adult with the mis-guided theory about children isn't outright mean to them, they often find this treatment refreshing. 

It should also be mentioned that adults who harbor this brand of theory about children, should they be offended or harmed by a child, are unlikely to punish, correct, or scold them, but rather respond by giving them, at most, a few pointed words of disapproval, before turning their backs, the way they would with a wayward adult over whom they have no authority other than their dignity. 

These adults don't "understand" children and so their interactions with them tend to be free of the urge that so many of us have to help or teach or otherwise better them. This is why I respect them.

You see, most children, most of the time, spend their days among adults whose theories about children are constructed on cuteness, naiveté, and ignorance. These adults, with the best of intentions, no doubt, tend to talk down to children in high-pitched sing-song voices reserved only for children and pets. These adults loooooove children, petting and pampering them, which is all well and good, but it too often comes with these notions of helping, teaching, correcting, and generally behaving as if this theoretical child cannot function without constant intervention from loving adults.

John Holt wrote: "It is condescending when we respond to qualities that enable us to feel superior to the child. It is sentimental when we respond to qualities that do not exist in the child but only in some vision or theory that we have about children." In his book Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior, anthropologist Christopher Boehm, based on 339 fieldwork studies, concluded that our hunter-gatherer ancestors "are universally -- and all but obsessively -- concerned with being free from the authority of others." Indeed, we have evolved as a species to resist the imposition of hierarchy, even when it comes to interactions between adults and children. Too often, those of us who claim to love children do so, at least in part, because we like the feeling of being superior. We help, teach, and correct these theoretical children "for their own good," not because they have asked us to help, teach or correct them, but because we feel it is our right (which is often mis-framed as a responsibility).

The truth is that children are nasty, uncontrollable, and feral. They are also cute, naive, and ignorant. All of us are. None of these traits proposed by our theories are the exclusive domain of childhood or adulthood. In the end, there is no such thing as a theoretical child and none of our theories are correct. Or rather, none of them are entirely correct which is why I often prefer the approach taken by the "I really can't stand children" crowd. There may be something horribly broken within these adults, but to the degree it allows them to leave the kids alone, to not not impose their unsolicited help, teaching, or correction upon them, and to not assume the posture of superiority, is the degree to which their seemingly anti-child stance really is for their own good. 


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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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Thursday, October 14, 2021

Where Does My Mind Stop And The Rest Of The World Begin?

The beauty of solo hiking in nature is that it becomes a space in which my mind can wander amongst beautiful things. Oh sure, my body is along for the ride. It has a habit of going where I go. Indeed, most of us, most of the time, think of our minds as being contained within our bodies. We talk about the mind-body connection. We think we know that when our bodies die, our mind, our consciousness, dies right along with it.

The trail I set out on yesterday is a popular one, maintained these days by crews, but it was already there, even before it was designated an "official" hiking trail. It has been created by other humans like me, thousands of them, perhaps millions, over decades and centuries, step by step, bodies and minds extending themselves one after another through the landscape. I was, as I walked, literally following in the footsteps of generations whose minds were likewise wandering amongst beautiful things. 

And I asked myself, "Where does my mind stop and the rest of the world begin?"

After all, I was also one of the humans making this trail, even as I was following it. This dusty, rocky, narrow trail is an extension of countless human minds, including my own, a collaboration that was underway long before it was made official. Without all those other minds wandering in nature, this still rugged route would likely have been impassable to me or would at least require special gear, greater concentration, and physical exertion beyond my present capacity. But all those other minds came before me, extending themselves into the world making it safer and more comprehensible to my own mind. Most of the minds that hiked this trail before me are no longer contained by individual bodies, yet here their minds are, under my feet, continuing to shape and be shaped by the world.

I tried to imagine the first human to hike this way and realized that their's wasn't the first mind to extend itself into this place. It's likely that this human was picking their way along the faint trail showed to them by the minds of animals, who were in turn following the trail made by the collective minds of wind, rain, and gravity, of tectonics and volcanic activity, all of which have extended their minds beyond anything that could be called a body, unless, of course, one considers all of nature as a single body, ourselves included.

When a baby is born, it is entirely dependent upon other humans, parents and caretakers, to make the world safer and more comprehensible. Their mind is clearly not confined to their body as they seek to extend themselves into others as others extend themselves into them.

The philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers coined the phrased "the extended mind" in a paper published in 1998, in which they addressed the question of "Where does my mind stop and the rest of the world begin?" by considered the ways that both current and future technologies "extend" the human mind into the rest of the world. For instance, the smart phone I carried with me on my hike held the potential to extend my consciousness, in a moment, into any place the internet could take it, which is to say, pretty much anywhere. 

As Clark and Chalmers wrote: "It is not just the presence of advanced external computing resources which raises the issue, but rather the general tendency of human reasoners to lean heavily on environmental supports. Thus consider the use of pen and paper to perform long multiplication . . . the use of physical re-arrangements of letter tiles to prompt word recall in Scrabble . . . the use of instruments such as the nautical slide rule . . . and the general paraphernalia of language, books, diagrams, and culture. In all of these cases the individual brain performs some operations, while others are delegated to manipulations of external media."

My own individual brain was performing some operations, but much of the "work" of hiking along this particular route were delegated to the external media of this trail -- it's flatness, it's direction, it's steps up and down -- a "media" created by a collective consciousness. 

Where does my mind stop and the rest of the world begin?

When I consider that newborn baby, I'm in the presence of an individual who was, literally, only a short time before, an integrated part of another human's body, and while the two bodies are no longer physically connected, there is no doubt that those two entities continue to extend into one another through what we call the mind or consciousness. As an early childhood educator, I'm aware that it will be years before this baby fully buys into our mistaken notions of being an individual, so fully are they extended into the other humans, and I dare say the entire world, around them.

Our minds, I think, are not confined by nature within it our bodies. It is a fiction we've created, one that separates, when what our minds, or more accurately our singular mind, seeks to unite by extending itself into the world the way a baby does when it cries out upon the moment of its birth.

As I hiked that nature trail, that creation of a consciousness that is both mine and not mine, I realized that nothing I thought was wholly my own, but rather a tapestry woven from a conscious universe, one that I rely upon, like a newborn, to make the world safer and more comprehensible. 


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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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Wednesday, October 13, 2021

"Real Flowers Always Fall Off"

We were messing around with pipe cleaners and tissue paper circles. It's a craft-ish project in that most of the kids know, because I showed them. You can make nifty little flowers by sliding the thin disks of paper onto their bendy stems one at a time, giving each one a gentle "crush" as you go. I don't have any pictures of them, but it's a common enough preschool activity that I'm sure most of my readers know what I'm talking about. (But if you want a look, here's a version from my friend Deborah using squares instead of circles.)

Some of the kids do their own thing with the materials available, creating "space ships" and "spiders" and "decorations," but there are always a handful who really, really want to master the flowers. Sarah, I thought, was one of those kids. She plunked herself down at the art table and got to work, brow furrowed, her authoritative chatter letting us know she was on top of things. Since I'd already demonstrated my own technique, I moved on to other things, leaving the art station in the capable hands of a parent-teacher.

Later, while outdoors, I chatted with the parent-teacher, saying something like, "That art project was pretty popular today. Sarah seemed to really like it."

She answered, "It was, but you know, she didn't make a single flower. She couldn't figure out how to get the tissue paper on the stem without tearing it." A huge bouquet of flowers had been created at that table and Sarah had sat there, hands busy for a good half hour. How could it be possible that she hadn't produced a single flower?

"Nope, not one," was the answer, "But she worked really hard. Every time she tried to crush the tissue like you showed them, the paper came off."

I'd not been watching Sarah's production, but only, occasionally, her face and body language. Not once had I seen a sign of frustration or failure. No, the girl I'd seen was hard at work, concentrating, narrating her activities, deeply involved in what I assumed was a manufacturing process like that of the other kids around the table who were making one for "mom," one for "dad," one for "grandma," one for "my pet cat Simon . . ."

"I tried to help her, but she didn't want help. She told me she was already an expert flower maker."

I said, "I guess that means we'd better keep making flowers tomorrow."

The following day, I made the same materials available, not on the art table this time, but on another table, a place where there would be no dedicated parent-teacher. Sarah didn't go there right away, instead choosing a housekeeping game, but before long she was drawn in, taking up a spot, alone with the materials. I sat with her, taking up my own stem, not saying anything. I watched her slide a tissue paper circle onto her pipe cleaner, tearing a huge hole in it during the process. And as had happened the day before, when she crushed it, it came off the stem. This didn't seem to bother her at all as she tossed the wad of paper aside and reached for another. This time she worked more slowly, nudging it along carefully, still ripping the paper too much, but when she crushed it, it stayed, almost balanced in place. Gingerly, she added a second disk of paper, halfway up the stem, then a third. 

From an artistic perspective it was a pretty pathetic looking flower. She held it up, no extra pride in her expression, no sign that there was anything amiss, "That's just so beautiful," then stuck in in the glass vase where we were displaying our finished pieces. She then got to work on another.

I put a piece of tissue paper on my stem and in my best imitation of the way she had done it, tore the hole a little too big, then crushing it to keep it precariously fixed in place. Sarah watched me from the corner of her eyes. "No, that's not the way," she said. "You have to do it more gently. Like this," then she showed me on her own flower.

I tried imitating her as best I could. "Good," she said, "That's right. Now, do another one." I followed her instructions.

She made a second flower as pathetic as the first and called it good. Before starting on a third, she watched me for a moment, growing frustrated with my attempts, although I was doing my best to imitate her. She snatched it from me, her voice infused with a false cheerfulness, "Here, let me just do that for you." In her rush, she caused all the tentatively fixed tissue to drop from my stem. "See?" she said, "That's what's supposed to happen. Now you can start over."

I didn't like the feeling of failure the exchange gave me, even as I knew I'd not failed. I knew because I'm an adult and I had practically invented this damn process, yet here I was with the tables turned. This is why I'm not a big fan of crafts in preschool: I worry that we put too many children in this situation. I said, reflexively, "I don't want to start over."

She sighed, "Okay, but you'll never figure it out if you give up."

"That's true." I got back to work, this time making a flower the way I'd initially shown the kids two days before, quickly pulling together a nice, tidy white carnation. Sarah watched me work without comment, then got back to her own stem. When she was finished with yet another pathetic flower, she said, "I think we should plant these in the garden."

I answered, "They would be pretty," then joking, "But, you know, they're not real flowers."

"I know that."

"I think the wind and rain would destroy them. The petals would all fall off."

"Real flowers always fall off," and even as she said it, one of her tissue paper wads fell from the stem she held. "Like that."

It was then that I understood Sarah's flowers. She was not making the perfect little imitation flowers the rest of us were making, but "real" flowers, the kind that bloom, live, then fall away when the winds blow. And in that flash, I was no longer in the presence of the pathetic attempts of a child, but rather what I saw before me were the godlike works of a creator.


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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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Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Setting Things, And People, Free

My wife and I are in the midst of moving into a new house. This is our ninth full household move together. The first couple were simple. We just threw the few sticks of furniture we owned into the backs of vans and that was it. Over the course of the next several moves, however, the task became increasingly monumental. Our sticks had become logs and there were lots of them. 

Our most recent move before this one was about purging both before and after the move. We scaled down dramatically, moving into an apartment that was about a third the size of the former house. There was no cellar, garage, or attic in which to hide our excess. I made a half dozen trips to the dump, paid excess recycling fees, and sold formerly cherished items for pennies on the dollar. And even so, we wound up renting the largest storage locker they had, which I arranged as a kind of showroom, then spent well over a year meeting buyers on weekends and evenings to make treasure of my trash.

There was a woman on a Harley who bought my mitre saw to make toys for her newborn nephew. There was a couple who collected Volkswagon memorabilia. When they saw our VW junk, accumulated during my wife's sojourn as an executive with the company, they were excited beyond measure so I just gave it all to them. And then there was the young couple, just starting out, who filled their living room with the same over-sized sectional sofa that had filled our living room when we were just starting out. Everyone had a story. Everyone was going to make something of our nothing. I'd felt a bit of melancholy over some of the things I'd tossed into the the garbage, but nothing but joy about the things that were moving on to the next phase of their lives.

They say "you can't take it with you," which was the spirit behind our purging. As I've been unpacking boxes, however, I've once more, despite my best efforts to stop curating crap, been confronted with excess. It's made me wonder: what if the ancient Egyptians were right? What if you can take it with you? Indeed, what if we have to? What if we must take everything we've accumulated with us into our next life?

That, I think, would be an incredible disappointment. Isn't one of the appeals of the afterlife that we get to wipe the slate clean, start over, and not be burdened by, well, the burdens of life?

When I watch toddlers play, I admire their ability to simply drop what they are doing and move on. They pick up one fascinating object, put it through its paces according to their curiosity, then when the next fascinating object catches their attention, it's unceremoniously dropped to the floor, left there, unpossessed, for others. Later they will learn to hoard and covet, but now they are as free as a person dwelling in the clouds, untethered by the things that tend to weigh us down.

And that is how I've been experiencing this newly discovered excess, each dusty stick or log, possessing me as much as I possess it, an obligation that I've sought to handle by stashing it away in the back corner of a closet, almost, but never quite forgotten. I'm not being ruthless or brutal. I'm not asking myself the Marie Kondo questions. I'm channeling my inner two-year-old: just letting go and moving on.

That said, as a preschool teacher I'm also a professional scavenger, a middle-class bag lady, who knows that the children will make treasure from pretty much any trash I offer them. Unlike me, however, they will not curate the junk. It will not come to own them. It will come alive in their hands for a time, then be dropped to the ground only to be picked up again, a found object, a loose part, that will be reanimated in their hands, minds, and hearts again and again until they are gone -- broken, buried or lost.

I sure hope it's true that you can't take it with you, but just in case, I'm clearing out the shelves and closets and cellars in my life. Things, like people, are not meant to be stored away in dark and dusty places, so I'm setting them free, and as I do, with each thing I drop to the ground, I too become freer.


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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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