Monday, September 11, 2023

"To Become Everything That One Is Capable Of Becoming"

Most of us are aware of the American psychologist Abraham Maslow because of his famous hierarchy of needs, usually portrayed as a pyramid. At the bottom, forming the base of the pyramid are physiological needs, like food, sleep, and breathing. The idea is that it is only once these needs are satisfied that humans  can give their attention to the next level up, which are safety needs, such as security, order, and stability. Maslow labeled the third level of needs as love and belonging, the satisfaction of which leads us to the capacity to address such things as self-esteem, confidence, and respect of and by others. At the top of the pyramid is self-actualization, or, the achievement of our highest potential, which includes such things as morality, creativity, spontaneity, problem solving, lack of prejudice, the acceptance of facts.

As important adults in the lives of very young children, we are largely responsible for achieving the first three levels on their behalf. We must feed and cloth them. We must provide them with conditions suitable for sleep (which is a major preoccupation with many new parents), breath, and excretion (another preoccupation what with all the diaper changing). And then, of course, we are charged with keeping them safe. Young Homo sapiens are notoriously dependent upon their elders for an extended period of time, a window of dependency that we in the Western world have extended beyond Mother Nature's original intent, for better or worse.

As for love and belonging, our young emerge from the womb seeking to connect to their world, especially the people, and it is our job to reciprocate. Even the next level up, esteem, is, at least in the early years, partially our responsibility. Some of us, no doubt go too far with all the empty and ubiquitous "Good jobs" and participation trophies, but even the most grudging among us know that it is on us to create environments in which our babies and toddlers can be confident, respected, and to generally feel good about themselves.

Self-actualization, however, is no one's responsibility but their own. We cannot tell them if they have achieved their highest potential. We can't possibly know what that is for them. They must do self-actualization all on their own. As philosopher and publisher Antonia Case writes in her book Flourish: "To self-actualize is to be content with yourself, driven by your own goals, and not waylaid by the demands of others, including broader society as a whole . . . Self-actualizers accept their own flaws, are comfortable, do not aim to be liked but rather are true to themselves. They also, (Maslow) believed, see the world afresh, like children, and can have 'peak experiences' that may be as simple as delighting in a sudden shaft of sunlight from behind a cloud. Of course, the path to self-actualization will not come without its pain and setbacks, warns Maslow. Often, we must uncover difficult parts of ourselves in order to grow -- there are often many fears, phobias, or habitual triggers that need to be pulled apart if one is to become the best version of oneself, or, as Maslow wrote, 'This tendency might be phrased as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.'"

Self-actualization is what young children do when they have permission to immerse themselves in play. As adults who work with young children, we necessarily spend a great deal of our time and energy providing for the needs represented by the bottom of Maslow's pyramid, or at least in supporting them as they learn to satisfy those needs for themselves. It can therefore be difficult for us to remember that if children are to satisfy their highest needs, not just in the future, but right now, our role must be to get out of the way, because they and only they, through their own self-directed activities, can teach themselves the habits and practice required for their unique life of self-actualization: to become everything that one is capable of becoming.


"This inspiring book is essential reading for every family choosing a preschool, every teacher working with young children, and every citizen who wonders how we can raise children who will make the world a better place." ~Dr. Laura Markham, author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids
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