Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Anything Is Possible

For the past several days, I've been wishing that I could be with Teacher Tom's Play Summit presenters Anitha Mereka and Jan Brown in Rwanda, working with children at the Bright School. What an incredible life's work that would be.

Presenter Mina Tobias reminds me that if I hadn't made my work early childhood education that I believe that I would have found my way into the mental health profession, specifically to work on some kind of cure or remedy for such debilitating mental illnesses as schizophrenia. What an important, transformative thing I would be doing.

When I hear about the work that presenters Nona Orbach and Roberta Pucci are doing in Isreal and Italy respectively, I wonder why I gave up on my youthful artistic aspirations. How much richer my life would be today were I to be spending my days in a well-lit studio in the act of creation.

When presenter Kisha Reid talks about her school that has become a nest for generations of families, I wonder what I would have been like to have started my own school in a small tight-knit community like Pooseville, Maryland where everyone knows everyone. What a warm and cozy life that would be.

I make these wishes and consider these roads untaken without regret or envy, but rather with a sense of wonder over the infinite possibilities that life presents. It awes me to recognize that every decision we make, even the smallest, is a fateful one.

On our good days, we look at young children through the lens of anything is possible. We take on an awesome responsibility when we care for young children because, for better or worse, we are the ones making those fateful decisions on their behalf. Some of us, both as parents and educators, do so with the kind of "swagger" that presenter Vanessa LaPointe talks about. Others are more like Tiersa McQueen who took her young son's complaints seriously and transformed her entire family because of it. Others map out every detail, plotting a child's course from diapers to Dartmouth, while others attempt to keep every door open until the children in their life decide which one through which to pass.

Psychologist and author Alison Gopnick writes in her book The Gardener and the Carpenter, "(I)t is very difficult to find any reliable, empirical relation between the small variations in what parents do -- the variations that are the focus of parenting -- and the resulting adult traits of their children. There is very little evidence that conscious decisions about co-sleeping or not, letting your children "cry it out" or holding them till they fall asleep, or forcing them to do extra homework or letting them play have reliable and predictable long-erm effects on who those children become." I suspect the same also goes for the small variations in what we do in the name of education.

The central metaphor of Gopnick's book is that our role is not to manufacture children in the spirit of a carpenter, but rather to allow our children to grow in the spirit of a gardener. And this means that whenever possible, we must grant them "permission" (as summit presenters Nona Orbach, Roberta Pucci, and Suzanne Axelsson talk about) to make make their own decisions about their lives, both big and small. Of course, we are responsible for keeping them safe and healthy, but the earlier and oftener we allow them to practice making genuine decisions (as opposed to manufactured decisions like which color tumbler to drink from), the better they will be at knowing what is best for themselves.

This means avoiding the trap of controlling children "for their own good" or tricking them with artificial choices. It means giving up the "unhealthy habits," as presenter Chazz Lewis labels them, of punishment and coercion. It means allowing the children in our lives to take actual risks, to fail, and to give it all up for any reason or no reason at all, as presenter Lenore Skenazy suggests. It means saving our advice for when they make it clear they want it. It means that we strive to see, hear, and feel them with the goal of understanding, and to not be cowed when others attempt to place their judgments on us. And it means to never stop loving them.

When we take this stance with our children, we see that so much of what the world tells us about teaching them is about what Italian author Natalia Ginzburg calls "The Little Virtues": things like thrift, caution, shrewdness, tact, and a desire for success. "(W)e rush to teach them respect for the little virtues, on which we build our whole system of education." This is not what children need from us. What they need most are adults in their lives who aspire to the great virtues, among which Ginzburg includes "an indifference to money," "courage and a contempt for danger," "frankness and a love of truth," "love for one's neighbor," and a desire not for success, but rather "to be and to know." And finally, she urges us to find our own "vocation," that thing that makes us come alive. The world doesn't need any more successful people; it needs more people who have come alive. "This," she writes, "is perhaps the one real chance we have of giving them some kind of help in their search for a vocation -- to have a vocation ourselves, to know it, to love it and serve it passionately; because love of life begets a love of life."

When a child has learned the great virtues, the little virtues will take care of themselves no matter what fateful path we are on. When a child knows that they are on this earth to find their vocation and to then serve it passionately, they will know to refuse every path, opting instead to make their own.

And we are to do the same.


Today is the fifth and final day of Teacher Tom's Play Summit. You can still get a free pass for today's four sessions with early childhood education and parenting experts from around the world. And it's not too late to purchase full lifetime access to all 20 sessions for $97. The price will go up after today, so act fast. Click here to register and upgrade . . . If you upgrade now, you will also receive lifetime access to all 24 of last year's sessions as well! That's 44 hours of professional development for under $100. We are also offering a discount for groups. Please join us!

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