Monday, October 31, 2022

The Serenity Prayer

For more than a decade, I prepared for my days with children as an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting took place in the room across the hallway. I didn't intentionally listen in, but over the years I grew to feel that I was, in a way, a part of their group. 

At the end of each meeting, they would stand together in a circle, holding hands to recite what is known as the Serenity Prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

Over the years, I came to appreciate that prayer as an inspiring way to start, not just a school day, but any day.

So much of the world is out of our control. The news is full of things we can't control. We might do the little individual things we can by way of ending war, fighting plague, or mitigating climate change, and maybe, just maybe, our small behaviors will make a difference. But we'll never really know. We vote, we write blog posts, we attend marches, rallies, and protests, all of which afford us the opportunity to at least feel like we have some modicum of control over things, but ultimately and perhaps despairingly, we all know it is out of our individual hands.

I often find myself thinking of Russian General Mikhail Kutuzov as envisioned by Leo Tolstoy in his masterpiece novel War and Peace. The general understood that at the end of the day, the war against Napoleon would be won or lost based not on individual heroism or genius strategy, but rather by the individual actions of both soldiers and citizens; that history was not about the behavior of great leaders, but rather the day-to-day, fight-or-flight, this-or-that, decisions made by the humans going about making lives work for themselves and those around them.

In other words, I must accept that I cannot end the war, but I can have the courage to be a pacifist in my own life. I cannot end plague, but I can help prevent its spread in my own corner of the world. I cannot save the planet, but I can live as gently on this earth as possible. These are at least things I can hope to control. I can learn more. I can talk to others about my experience. I can even share my fears with them, but at the end of the day, the only thing over which I can ever hope to have control is myself. And even that can be a serious challenge, as all those AA stories will attest.

We are all seeking, if not actual control, at least the feeling of control in our lives. This is a challenge because the universe is chaotic and ultimately unknowable. It can be frightening to contemplate how little control we have. 

When I heard that Serenity Prayer each morning, I recited it along with them. 

One place that adults so often feel they can exert their power is in their relationships with young children. Indeed, there are many who feel that controlling children is central to their role. Just a few days ago a colleague told me the story of an educator who didn't like that some of her students wore their pajamas or played with toys or moved off-camera during their online remote "learning" sessions during the pandemic. It made her feel out of control so she would phone the children's parents to have them act as her surrogates to keep the children in line. As this colleague put it, "She spent all her time on trying to control the kids and none of it educating them." This is more than a metaphor for what too often happens in our classrooms, remote or in person.

The daily Serenity Prayer reminds me that my job is not to exert my power over children, but rather to seek to give my power away, to use it to empower them to assert control over their own lives and their own learning. That's what a play-based curriculum is all about. This is how children acquire the courage to change the things they can change, to stand up for their beliefs, to exert their own power in their own corner of the world. The adage is to "think globally, but act locally." Acting locally means tending to our relationships, communicating, and listening. This too is what play-based learning is all about. These are the important lessons to be learned when one is not under the control of others: it is the lesson of being us, which is the foundational place from which all great change must come. It will never come from generals or other leaders, but rather, to paraphrase Margaret Mead, from small groups of committed and caring people. This is what Tolstoy's general knew as well.

We seek control, we crave control, but it eludes us more often than not. This struggle to control the world can make us afraid, frustrated, depressed, and angry. Even within our own corners of the world, control is elusive, especially when we understand that we may not control others, no matter how young. But we can hope to control ourselves. We can, as the author and philosopher Voltaire wrote, cultivate our own gardens in the company of the people who we know and who know us.

There will still be rocks and weeds to remove. There will still be difficulties and disagreements. But here is where change and control is finally possible.


"I recommend these books to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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 28, 2022

"I Have To Put You In Your Cage To Keep You Safe"

They say that the Golden Rule is the only one we need, that every major religion has some version of it embedded in its theology. And it's a good rule, the most familiar iteration being, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." But it's not the highest rule. In my book, that honor goes to a rule that the kids agreed to among themselves a few years back: "Don't do anything to anybody unless you ask them first."

The Golden Rule doesn't ask for consent, it just asks each individual to look inward and assume that others feel as we do (empathy), while the kids' rule caused us to turn our attentions outward and to consider that others might feel differently than we do (compassion). We lived with this agreement for the better part of a school year and it was enlightening when considered in view of the recent spat of celebrities and politicians being outed as habitual sexual harassers and worse. These are men, and it's mostly men, who may well have been adhering to the Golden Rule as they saw it, only doing to others what they themselves would want done to them. What's missing from their actions is consent and that's what makes it a crime.

The children's consent rule wasn't easy to enforce. Young children are forever bumping, tickling, hugging, pushing, and otherwise "doing" things to one another just in the natural flow of things. As the adult responsible for helping the children keep their agreements, I didn't feel it was my place to micro-manage these sorts of day-to-day interactions even if they did technically violate the rule of law. To do so would have meant repeatedly interrupting the children's play to remind them of their agreement to the point that there wouldn't have been much time left for the actual playing. Instead, I decided to let the kids self-manage the rule, only getting involved when a child invoked the rule of their own accord.

And they did, "Hey, you didn't ask before you pushed me!"

"You didn't ask if you could touch me!"

"You didn't ask if you could sit beside me!"

"You didn't ask if you could look at me!"

That's right, we did sometimes head down that road. Most of the time the kids invoked their rule appropriately, but we also sometimes took it too far. As the adult, it was easy to know what to do when it came to pushing. I was less confident about the unwanted touching. I had mixed feelings about children using the rule to control where people sat. And dictating where others cast their gaze was a bridge too far.

Needless to say, our consent rule created a gray area, and the only way to deal with it was through talking, sometimes lots of it, sometimes emotional. So that's what we did.

A few school years later, some of the older kids began using the large dog crate on our playground as a kind of prison into which they put one another. They were playing "pets." Those put into the crate were animals that must be confined for their own "safety." The game involved lots of grabbing and wrestling as the pets are usually "reluctant" to be put in their cage. Watching this game as an adult was difficult. Children were "forcing" one another into a small, dark space, then barring the door with an old safety gate, holding it firmly in place while the children inside pretend to object, ultimately escaping before being chased down and returned to their prison. The game evoked so many nasty things for me, especially when it was boys forcing girls. It was a consensual game, yet the core of the game was pretending they didn't consent. Particularly upsetting for me was that the captor would often say, "I have to put you in your cage to keep you safe," while shoving another child into the hole.

As they played, I stayed nearby, waiting for that moment when I was certain they would go too far, when someone would get frightened, when it would become too real and they wanted to withdraw their consent. We didn't have the consent rule on the books that school year, but we had agreed that if someone says "Stop!" you have to stop, which is a similar thing. A couple times I reminded kids, "Remember, if you don't like what's happening you can say Stop!" but they just ignored me and continued about their game.

The truth is that none of them asked for my help, either directly or indirectly. They were playing their unsavory-looking game quite happily, managing to keep it going for long stretches, day-after-day, despite its intensity and potential for conflict, injury, and hurt feelings. In part, they were doing it by talking and listening, the pet owners continually informing their pets about what is coming next: "I'm going to grab you and put you back in your cage," "If you get away, I'm going to catch you and bring you back," "I can't let you get out, it's not safe." The pets in this game, as is true in real life, couldn't talk back, so their owners were forever peering into their faces, studying their expressions, looking, I think, for consent. They were forever holding onto their pets, studying their body language, feeling, I think, for consent. At least that's what it looked like they are doing as they played.

I gradually became more comfortable with the kids' game. Even as I continue to be bothered by the optics, I now see that it was, at its core, a game about consent, about children continually checking in with one another, not with the formality of asking permission, but by "reading" one another, continually, everyone turned outward, following a rule that stands above the golden one.


"I recommend these books to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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 27, 2022

Returning To The Inspiration Coming From Within

"Teacher Tom, look what I made!"

"I'm looking at what you made."

I strive to hold a space in which children are as free as possible to create, explore, study, and play with as little adult judgement as possible. I am not there to critique their work or to teach them tricks, but rather to be the resident expert on safety, schedules, and courtesy, while providing the time and space for children to ask and answer their own questions about their world.

When a child says, "Look what I made!" most adults respond as if it's a request for judgement and offer some sort of knee-jerk praise. "It's beautiful!" we might say, placing our benign stamp of approval on the child's work. I was taught that a more appropriate response is to instead focus on the effort (e.g., "You worked on that for a long time") or to simply stick with the facts (e.g., "You used red paint and some bits of string"). It's the difference between children learning to be motivated extrinsically versus intrinsically. Our constant critiques, even when offered as praise, teach children that their value is in the eyes of others, and in particular those with power, while our goal, I hope, is to teach them to judge their work for themselves, to be guided by their own internal light.

Even though most of us already know this, it remains challenging. It's hard to not want to praise children. And, especially as parents, it's even harder sometimes to avoid criticizing them, especially as they get older and we fear they are headed for pain and heartbreak or, if we are honest with ourselves, embarrassing us. I have been trying to train myself in the art of speaking with children for a couple decades now and it is still hard for me. I still catch myself making mistakes daily.

When I'm at my best, however, when I'm truly creating a place in which children can practice thinking for themselves, it's when I am unhurried enough to take a moment to collect myself before speaking. I've found this to be a key for me: that pause to make sure I am saying what I want to be saying. And I've noticed in recent years that even the words I'm saying, when I'm at my best, are even less intrusive that those comments about effort or a factual description of what I see before me.

When a child says, for instance, "Look what I made!" I find myself responding directly to her words and nothing more, "I'm looking at what you made."

"Teacher Tom, this is for you." . . . "This is for me."

"Teacher Tom, I fell down." . . . "You fell down."

"Teacher Tom, look what I can do." . . . "You can do that."

"Teacher Tom, I'm here." . . . "You're here."

It's as if I'm a mirror for the children, a surface upon which to reflect. Most of the time this is enough, the child just wants to know that they are heard, even though some children then proceed to tell me what they really want me to know rather than flowing into the channel dug by my adult assumptions. Perhaps they will then describe what it is they've made, or share that they were or weren't injured, or detail the process by which they achieved whatever it is they've achieved. Most often, however, they simply smile in recognition of having been heard, then go back about their business, turning away from the mirror of me, and returning to the inspiration coming from within.


"I recommend these books to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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 26, 2022

Disappearing Or Getting Lost

People are often surprised when I say or write that safety is our number one responsibility when it comes to our work with young children. After all, human babies are born uniquely vulnerable compared to other species and they stay that way for quite some time. Psychologist and author Alison Gopnik argues that adults caring for the young is so important for the survival of Homo sapiens that we are among the only species to have evolved grandparents to compensate for how long they remain in a state of relative helplessness.

I don't want the children in my care, or any child, to be injured, which is why I have always started each day by removing and mitigating hazards in their environment.

If there is a rusty nail sticking out at eye level, I pound it down.

If I find broken glass on the playground, I remove it.

If the railing surrounding a high place is wobbly, I shore it up.

It's common sense to identify and remove hazards. But keeping children safe does not mean removing opportunities for children to explore and play with risk. Indeed, brain science tells us that children need risk, genuine risk, if their brains, and the pre-front cortex in particular is to develop properly. If for nothing else, children must experience risk in childhood if they are going to grow into adults who know how to eep themselves safe. 

I want children to be safe, not just for an hour or a day, but for a lifetime, which is why I allow children in my care to play with self-selected risk. It's why I refer to all those bumps, scrapes, cuts and bruises as "learning ouchies." Each bandage, each ice pack, each body part that requires a loving rub or a kiss, represents a moment that a child has challenged themself in order to learn an aspect of the most important lesson there is; to keep themselves safe in this world; to learn their limits, to learn about consequences, and to learn about healing.

Norwegian professor and researcher Ellen Beate Hansen Sandseter is considered one of the world's leading authorities on the value of playground risk taking. In her doctoral thesis, entitled, delightfully, Scary Funny, she identifies six categories of risk that young children must explore in the quest of experiencing the "exhilaration and fear" that we all need in order to develop properly: great heights, rapid speeds, dangerous tools, dangerous elements, rough and tumble play, and (perhaps the one that frightens us adults the most in today's climate fear about children) disappearing or getting lost.

There are children hidden in the branches of all of these trees and not an adult (other than me) in sight.

I've been thinking quite a bit about that final one in the afterglow of my recent trip to Iceland to take part in the annual Play Iceland experience. Most play-based settings I've observed on this side of the pond do a decent job of allowing children opportunities to explore the other modes of risk taking, but we tend to freak out about the idea of children disappearing or getting lost. Even the extremely risk-friendly Woodland Park playground is designed to allow adult eyes on every corner.

In contrast, I've never visited an Icelandic preschool that didn't include places for children to experience the exhilaration of disappearing, at least momentarily. The playground pictured in this post is large compared to most American preschool playgrounds and it features stands of trees and patches of shrubbery ideally suited for children to "get lost." As I toured the place, both outdoors and indoors, I came across children, both alone and in groups, playing in out of the way corners, in the branches of trees, and pretty much anyplace that provided them a respite from the adult gaze that follows our children for the entirety of their young lives.

Everywhere I looked, I found these worn places behind rocks and amidst trees where a generation of children have experienced the thrill of being "lost."

Sandsetter writes about exhilaration and fear, but as I've spent time in Icelandic preschools, I get a sense that for many children, these moments of disappearing and getting lost also contain an element of relief. There is a special kind of freedom that I recall from my own childhood that comes from being away, finally, from the critical eyes of adults.

Most impressively, I think, was that other than this intrusive tourist, stumbling across them in their hiding places, the actual adults responsible for them were emphatically not hunting them out. They were not constantly counting heads or calling their names. They left the children to be lost, trusting that they would allow themselves to be found when the time came to reveal themselves.

Do the children in our care have these important opportunities disappear or get lost, and if not, how can we provide them? Perhaps it is as simple as adding blankets under which they can hide or large appliance boxes or rooms where they can simply shut the door. It's a start at least. It's something we should all be thinking about, especially if we want children to grow up to know how to keep themselves safe.


"I recommend these books to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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 25, 2022

"I'm Doing This For Your Own Good"

When someone says, "I'm doing this for your own good," rest assured it is not for your own good. Or at least it's not in your best interest, according to your own judgement, in this particular moment, and usually it is decidedly against your best interest by any measure. It's the end argument for those who would compel, deceive, or censor, not always perhaps, but often enough that no one should be expected to accept it at face value, not even young children. As John Holt writes, "We cannot assume, just because we hear someone say, 'I'm doing this to help you,' that what he does will be good."

This is not to say that as a parent, teacher, or other adult responsible for the well-being of a child, that we shouldn't compel a child when their imminent safety or the safety of others is involved. No, that's our paramount responsibility, to keep the children safe, right now, and sometimes compulsion is necessary. But claims of doing it for someone's "own good" are rarely about imminent danger, but rather some danger, real or imagined, that will come, or not, in the future. And quite often the so-called danger is simply an excuse to assume control over other humans.

Dictators always rest their case on doing it "for your own good." Cult leaders are notorious for it. It's a phrase parents traditionally have used while administering corporal punishment, probably to assuage their own sense of guilt, as if hitting a child can ever result in anything good, let alone their own. Atrocities are always cloaked in the thin disguise of the powerful doing "good" to or for the weak.

If a child is about to walk into a band saw, we grab their arm and pull them away. If they ask us why, we answer, "Because you were about to walk into a band saw." We only say, "This is for your own good" when we don't really want them to know, when our motivation is for them to simply obey or relent. It is an exceedingly rare circumstance in which compulsion or deception or censorship is done for someone else's own good. If honesty is not enough, if the "truth" is so easily rejected that it must be hidden, if it is not compelling enough in its own right, then one must doubt that "truth."

I want children to develop a healthy suspicion of those who would, unsolicited, "help" them. I want them to know that just because someone says, "I'm doing this to help you," that what they plan to do may not be good. And it starts with the adults they already trust, their parents and teachers, who are responsible for keeping them safe, not by wielding our power, not by declaring, "I'm doing this for your own good," but by being honest and transparent in our good intentions, rather than hiding behind the language of compulsion. This is part how children will learn the difference between those they can trust and those they cannot. This is how they will come to trust their own judgement and to know for themselves what is good for themselves and what is not.


"I recommend these books to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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 24, 2022

"It's Always Fun Here!"

I was sitting out of the way learning what I could from observing the children as they played. It was a wild game of throwing balls at one another, while the teacher occasionally called out words in Icelandic. I was trying to determine whether his words were ones of encouragement, instruction, correction, or scorekeeping when a girl I'd never seen before emerged from an adjoining room, locked eyes with me, and said, in English, "It's always fun here!"

I'd only just arrived, but word had apparently already reached her that the school was hosting visitors from abroad. She said, "Come with me!"

As I followed her into a space where she proudly showed me the "home" she and her friends were building from gym matts, fabric, blocks, and whatever else came to hand, my new friend plunged back into her play. Had she specifically interrupted her game to come out to fetch me? She hadn't been sent out by an adult as I was the only adult in the room. Had it been an accident? Had she simply fled the room momentarily, hurled there by the momentum of their collective play, and had been as surprised to see me as I had been to seen her? Whatever the case, I was filled with the words she had said to me: "It's always fun here!"

It was a greeting of genius, an invitation and introduction, both to herself and this place where, she told me, she has been coming for six years, since she was two-years-old. In English, she had said, "It's always fun here!" If the goal is inclusion, of invitation into friendship, then these words were far superior to the "Pleased to meet you," or "Hello, my name is Inge" that we so often coach children into saying when meeting strangers.

This is how humans are meant to welcome one another. At least that is what I was thinking as I stayed there, wrapped in this embrace of genuine welcome.

I was later in the woods with some three year olds. While most of the children clutched together in their play, one boy hovered around the edges, sometimes watching the others, sometimes seeming to ignore them in favor of his own pursuits. Was he looking for a way to enter into their play or was he opting out?

At one point a group of children bearing sticks begin to use them to interact with a cold grill, poking at the ashes, lifting the gratings, banging the sides. He watched them for a bit, then wandered off into the trees where he came upon the largest stick of them all, a branch that had broken off, I presume, in one of Iceland's legendary windstorms. After contemplating it for a moment, he lifted one end, struggling to do so. Then slowly he began to walk, dragging it behind him, heading away from where the other children were playing. 

He dragged his stick over roots and rocks, winding through the trunks of trees, challenges that were nearly too much for him. I wondered where he might be taking his branch. I had noticed a small stream some ways off. Maybe he was planning to toss it into the water. Then I noticed another solitary child pacing about amidst the trees. As he passed this child, without words, she bent to take up half his burden. Moments later they passed by where I sat, moving easily now, each carrying one end of the branch back toward the grill where the others played.

I understand why parents urged their children to greet me in the morning, "Say good morning to Teacher Tom," but I would always respond, "Oh, she's already said good morning." It would confuse the parents who hadn't heard any words, but that's because their greeting had been of the superior sort: a shy smile, a little wave, or something akin to dragging a stick through the woods or declaring "It's always fun here!" Gestures that are more than greetings, that say this is me and this is how I want to play with you.


"I recommend these books to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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 21, 2022

A String On The Floor

There was a ball of pink yarn on the floor in a room where children played. One end had been pulled out. I picked it up and retreated to the wall, where I sat on a ledge, holding one end of the yarn. 

The adults in the room didn't seem to notice the line of yarn, treading on it, kicking it inadvertently. Every child who came my way, however, took note of it. Most simply paused in whatever it was they were already doing, then stepped across it, always, unlike the adults, careful not to disturb it. Many took the time to follow the string from end-to-end with their eyes, noticing the rest of the balled yarn at one end and me at the other.

When they made eye-contact with me, I would lift the string from the floor, only a few inches. One or two children saw it as a barrier and walked around the end, but most understood it as an invitation. Some took high steps across it, but the most common response was to jump or leap over it.

Some chose to do this repeatedly. I would raise or lower the string and they would choose where along its length to jump, selecting a height that, to them, seemed just right, whatever that meant.

Some looked at me, smiled, then walked right through the yarn, pulling it along with them across the room. They were watching to see what I would do, I think. I did nothing, except perhaps the drop my end of the string if it looked as if they might trip. These children often found themselves tangled, which became a puzzle of untangling.

One boy addressed the ball of yarn itself, picked it up, put it in his mouth, then circled the room, wrapping several children in this fine line of its embrace. Many didn't even notice, while others squealed, jumped, evaded, and ran.

Another boy stepped on the thread of yarn, looked me in the eye, then methodically walked the line toward me, step-over-step, carefully pressing the raised yarn to the floor until he stood in front of me beaming up into my face, mission accomplished.

At one point there was a half dozen 2-5 year olds jumping back and forth over the raised line of yarn. They said few words to one another, but despite the explosive, large movements in a small space, they managed to play this active game without bumping one another . . . At least not on accident. I mention this because a pair of children, clearly friends, made a game of jumping, bumping their bodies together, then pretending to fall down.

A baby, just walking, watched from a distance, then boldly approached the line when the crowd cleared. I lowered it to the floor and this baby. Like the big kids she had observed, she jumped as babies do, without ever leaving the floor. She did it again and again, back and forth, with an expression of concentration.

Meanwhile, whenever an adult passed by, whatever game we were playing was paused as I was forced to lay the yarn completely on the floor so as to not trip them; nearly all of them failed to notice this thread on the floor, treading on it and kicking it inadvertently. The children, to their great credit, tolerated these interruptions, waiting for the adult to pass as one might traffic or a sudden rain storm, then resumed their game until they had played to the end of their curiosity.

This is the role I value most as an educator: serving as dead weight, an anchor, a prop, a serviceable part as the children go about their lives.


"I recommend these books to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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 19, 2022

A Process Of One Thousand Steps

I think most of us, if asked to define "success," would think deeply enough to consider more than the capacity to acquire great wealth. Certainly, we would cite things like having "enough" money and a holding personally satisfying job, but we would also include things like mental and physical health, good personal relationships with friends and family, and a general sense of well-being about how life is going.

There has never been a study that links early literacy or early numeracy to any of these aspects of "success," even the superficial one of wealth. None. Never. 

The research that's been done on successful people tends to find, rather, that their success comes from being motivated, sociable, and having the ability to work well with others. These are the skills and attributes children work on when they have ample opportunity to play, especially outdoors, with other children, with few toys and lots of time, and with a minimum of adult intervention. Our job as adults to prepare an environment in which free play is possible, to keep an eye out for hazards (as opposed to risks children choose to take on their own), and where children have the opportunity to do things for themselves, even if it means failing, and failing often.

As a teacher in a cooperative and a parent myself, I understand the pressures parents are under. On the one hand there are those who insist we must drill and grill our youngest citizens lest they "fall behind," while on the other, there are those who are in the business of selling us on the idea that children are constantly at risk of abduction or injury or other dangers. These twin manufactured fears, and they are largely manufactured, have caused a generation of parents to behave as what is popularly called "helicopter parents," always hovering nearby, always ready to step in, always urging and cajoling and warning, teaching helplessness instead of independence. All this leaves precious little time for the children to actually play in the way that will allow them to grow into successful adults.

I reckon by writing this, I'm now, at one level, joining the fear-mongers, providing parents who are already pulled this way and that by fear, one more thing about which to worry: is my child getting enough free play? For that I'm sorry, but the answer is, if you're a typical American parent, probably not.

I've spent my career at a cooperative preschool, which means that I worked more closely with parents than most teachers. I write here often about teaching children, but one of the most important things I did was to also teach their parents, which was done formally through our parent educators, and informally by our larger community of families who were, collectively, striving to offer children the opportunity to acquire the skills and attributes of success through play. It's a learning process I've witnessed time and again, one that I experienced myself as a parent. I know that for some it is a painful one of "letting go," of coming to trust the world enough to know that those inevitable bumps and bruises our children experience, both physical and emotional, those "failures," are the true building blocks of success. It's hard because we live in a culture that tells us our job as parents is to fix things for our kids, to make things easy, to soften the blows. We have to consciously push back against the culture of fear that has come to surround parenting if we are to raise truly successful adults.

Most of our three-year-olds were out of diapers. When they told me they need to go to the potty, I pointed to the bathroom and said, "The toilet is in there." If you asked their parents, many would insist their child still needed their presence, if not assistance, in the bathroom, but it was really no longer true. Sure, children may want mommy with them, after all it can be an intimate, private moment, but when mommy isn't at school, they've shown they are more than capable. Yes, some struggle to get their pants back up, others miss the toilet, and I'm sure few do as thorough a job of wiping as mom, but they all come out of there, mission accomplished, then hop up on the stool near the sink to wash their hands.

It's likewise difficult for parents to step back and allow their children to engage in, say, conflict or risk, but it must be done if our goal is successful children. Yes, they will fail, and those failures form the foundation of success. Indeed, when looked at from the wider perspective they aren't failures at all, but rather steps along a pathway. As Thomas Edison famously said about the invention of the light bulb when asked by a journalist how it felt to have failed a thousand times: "I did not fail a thousand times. Inventing the light bulb was a process of one thousand steps."

A pastor friend of mine once said that our main mission in life is to say to the other people, "Don't be afraid," and that is what I'm saying to parents. Your children already know how to be successful. What they need from you is to love them, to trust them, and to keep them safe. Otherwise, relax and get out of their way. It's through freedom that their own unique success will be found.


"I recommend these books to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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