Friday, December 29, 2023

Appreciation is a Holy Thing

After reading a story, then singing our final song together, the children came forward to hug me, not one at a time, but all together, and there we were, a massive scrum of bodies, wrapping one another up in our arms.

Since my first year teaching, this was the way the two-year-olds said goodbye to me at the end of the day. I never asked for it or encouraged it in any way other than, I suppose, to be open to it. It always started on the first day of class each year because there was always that one child who genuinely felt the urge to hug me, to receive a hug from me, then others saw it, thought, "I want some of that," and came for their hug as well. I said the children's names as they approached, "Here's my Sarah hug, my Nora hug, my Alex hug . . ."

Mister Rogers said, "I believe that appreciation is a holy thing." We were saying goodbye to one another, of course, but we were also saying thank you, expressing our gratitude, showing our appreciation, not in payment for any particular favor, but simply for the time we had together. It started spontaneously, then, as the year progressed, became a sort of ritual, each child making it their own. There were some who rushed to be first, others who waited for the crowd to thin. Some didn't want to let go. Some come back for a second and third and fourth hug. A few didn't want to hug, preferring a high five or simply eye contact. Some were moved to hug their classmates.

It was a beautiful way to end our time together, topping one another up before heading off into our separate lives.


"Teacher Tom, our caped hero of all things righteous in the early childhood world, inspires us to be heroic in our own work with young children, and reminds us that it is the children who are the heroes of the story as they embark on adventures of discovery, wonder, democracy, and play." ~Rusty Keeler
If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 

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Thursday, December 28, 2023

My Resolution for 2024

When our daughter was little and frightening news of the world got to her, I would try to put things in perspective: "Most people, most of the time are having a fine day." That this has been true throughout all of history, even when great tragedy is unfolding in one part of it. (And indeed when is it not?)

Maybe it's not a great day, although someone is also always having one of those as well, but a fine one, because most things involving humans are like that -- a little high a little low, a little hot a little cold, a little smooth a little rough. Both the optimists and the pessimists are right: it could always get better and it could always get worse. 

I suspect that most of us are pro-optimism, even if we're pessimistic by nature. It's hard not to be when you're working with young children, who themselves are generally having fine days. Their youth shines for us like a light into the certainty of a better future. And even if we can't help but regret in advance the equal assurance that they will suffer, it just seems that optimism is the proper stance when it comes to the young so we pull ourselves together and say, "It will heal," "The lights will come back on," "The worst is behind us."

Around the time of the Winter Solstice, I try this out on grown-ups, saying things like, "This is as dark as it gets, now we can look forward to more light," or "It all gets better from here!" Most thanked me, accepting my invitation to look forward with hope, but many drew back in mock defensiveness, bubbling back, "I love the dark! I love the long night!" denying my assertion that there could be anything wrong. I understand that they were looking into the dark with the certainty of their optimism, wearing it like a shield against doubt.

Hope and fear are the two sides of this coin and both are legal currency in the marketplace of the future. There are those that claim that we create reality through our attitude, that if we anticipate success we make it more certain, while the same goes for failure. And I expect there is some truth to that, although probably a lot less than the pop philosophies would lead us to believe. In her book Bright Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America, inspired by her struggle with breast cancer, Barbara Ehrenreich, calls this faith in the determinism of attitude "the new Calvinism," seeing a world in which we are all ultimately and personally responsible for the evils that befall us, be it cancer or unemployment, casting every set-back as a personal failure, having nothing to do with the pernicious randomness of disease or outgoing tide of economic recession.

Optimism is a magnificent thing. I hardly think I'd want to go on living without it. However, living hopefully does not call for optimism of the blind variety, but rather the eyes-wide-open knowledge that this sure as hell can work given what I know to be true about the world and myself. Optimism backed up by thoughtfulness, experience, and confidence is always justified, but when worn merely as a prophylactic against fear, it sets us at the roulette wheel feverishly spinning away, doomed to go bust no matter what our attitude.

Pessimism gets a bad rap and I understand that. Relentlessly pessimistic people are hard to be around unless they're able to temper it with a cynic's humor, and even that wears thin after awhile. That doesn't mean that the fear at the heart of the pessimist isn't justified. It could always go wrong. The future is full of pitfalls: we count on our wary pessimists to point them out. Whose investment advice would you be more likely to take: the optimist or the pessimist? The pessimist's, of course, after all if they're willing to place a bet on the future, you can be darned sure they've done their homework and is not relying on the vagaries of "good thoughts."

Young children don't think in terms of optimism and pessimism, especially the very young for whom the future really doesn't exist, let alone with enough concreteness to evoke hope or fear. And sure, as they get older they quite reasonably adopt the cloak most appropriate for the occasion; dressing for instance in eager anticipation of the holidays or in fearful anticipation of the doctor's needles. Rational responses both, ones that belie the reality that the presents are rarely as incredible as one hopes nor the pain as bad as one fears. Our attitude, be it hope or fear, may not alter reality, but it does help to temper our experience with reality in a way to prevent the highs from being too high and the lows from being too low.

I'm thinking of all this today in the waning days of 2023 because as I reflect back on the ill-reputed year now past with all it's obvious downs and surprising ups, I can't help but think of the "curse" that is usually attributed to the ancient Chinese: "May you live in interesting times."

And indeed, I have been cursed; we have been cursed. The brilliance of this curse, of course, is that it can just as easily be a blessing, because really, who would want to live in boring times? And indeed, I have been blessed; we have been blessed.

I'm going to try this year, as a resolution, to approach the future more like a child, setting aside the dogmatism of optimism and pessimism. I will let my feelings flourish, learn what I can from them, then wearing them on my sleeve, I'll try to seize the day while worrying about tomorrow when it comes.

When I succeed, I will credit those who hugged me when it was dark. When I fail, I will shrug and not heap all the blame on myself, knowing that I have no control over the weather.

There is a companion curse that goes along with the famous one. It's one we habitually evoke for one another this time of year as a blessing, so take it as you will: "May your wishes be granted."

In the meantime, however, I wish you a fine year.


"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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Wednesday, December 27, 2023

The Only Way to Learn to Make Decisions is Through Practice

The boy stood outside the door. I smiled at him from the inside as his mother tried to coax him forward. He smiled back at me, but didn't move.

His mother asked him, "Don't you want to go to school?"

He nodded that he did, still smiling. Indeed, he appeared relaxed, almost like he was just taking his time, breathing, pausing before launching into his morning.

"Then let's go," his mother urged, taking a step toward the door, but he still didn't move. She gave me an apologetic look, then turned back to her son, "Are you coming?"

He nodded that he was coming, still smiling, and still not moving toward the door.

"Well, I'm going inside," she said, "It's cold out here. You can come in when your ready." She shrugged at me as she descended the stairs. The boy looked after her until she was out of his line of sight, then he began scanning the face of the building, taking it in as if he had never noticed its brick face before. He looked straight up at the sky. 

There was no reason to rush. In fact, they were early, among the first to arrive. His mother lowered her voice, "I don't know what it is. He loves coming to school. It's all he talks about."

I answered, "It looks to me like maybe he's savoring the moment."

"Maybe that's it," she replied, "but if it is, he's the master of savoring moments. He does this all the time. He did the same thing at the grocery store yesterday. When I ask him what he's waiting for, he tells me he's waiting to know what to do."

I asked her, "Is he waiting for you to tell him what to do or something?"

"Obviously not," she laughed, "You heard me. It's like he's waiting for an inner voice."

By now others were arriving, stepping around him to get through the door. Still he stood, smiling, breathing, waiting for his inner voice.

After several minutes, his mother did what some parenting books suggest: she gave him a choice. "You can walk in by yourself or I can carry you."

In a flash, his sanguineness left him. His body visibly stiffened, his eyes rounded. Then he burst into tears.

Perhaps he had, all along, been submerging his real feelings behind smiling and stillness, but two-year-olds typically don't try to hide their feelings. More likely, it had been his mother's gentle insistence that he make a decision that had suddenly stressed him out.

I think, as adults, with all of our practice making decisions, we tend to forget how very stressful it can be to make decisions, even seemingly small ones. After all, only a few months ago he was a baby. We don't expect babies to make decisions. It's something we must learn how to do. And without practice it can be hard.

Indeed, among the living things, it seems that humans are unique in terms of decision-making. A flower becomes aware of the sun and turns toward it. My dog barks at sudden noises. The rabbits that live in my neighborhood react to the same noises by hiding in the shrubbery. Flowers, dogs, rabbits, they don't make decisions, they react to their "inner voice." And while we humans certainly remain at one level instinctive animals, we are the only living creature, as far as we know, that can override our instincts, and actually make a decision about how to behave in any given circumstance.

And making decisions is stressful. The onus to choose among one or more courses of action is something we must practice. We talk about the impulsivity of young children. If we ask them why they did this or that, they usually can't tell us because there was no point at which they made a decision -- they just reacted according to instinct in the same way they instinctively react to a breast by suckling. But the uniqueness of humanity is that we have developed a kind of consciousness that is capable of ignoring our inner voice and choosing how to behave.

It must be incredibly confusing to be a very young child, stuck between the natural imperative of instincts and the learned social imperative to make decisions. 

In many ways, decision-making can be considered the essence of our lives. 

Of course, we all know the stress of making big decisions, like choosing a university, buying a home, or getting married. Making these decisions are often so stressful that it impacts our eating and sleeping.

On the other hand, most of us believe have figured out how to reduce the stress of day-to-day decision-making. One strategy we all use is to make a decision once, then stick to it as a way to avoid the stress of on-the-spot decision-making. We call these habits. It is stressful, however, when something happens to thwart us. We choose a brand at the supermarket and stick to it, but are thrown for a small loop when our favorite is out of stock. We make schedules, then get stressed out when something comes up. We're suddenly made anxious when our normal route to work is blocked by construction. Even our little decisions, and the gyrations we go through around them, shape our lives, often profoundly.

Young children have not learned the trick of habits and so are forever faced with decisions that we consider inconsequential. No wonder they cry.

There is only one way to learn to make decisions and that is through practice. This is why play is so important for young children. It is the mechanism by which children can grapple with the dilemma of decision-making. Through play, we learn, in a relatively safe way, about the consequences of our decisions, we learn how to consider others in our decision-making, we figure out those habits that make our lives less stressful, and also what to do when our expectations are thwarted. 

There is pain, fear, and loss: these are the stressors we share with all living things. But the stress of decision-making is ours alone. And it is our blessing and our curse.


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Few people are better qualified to support people working in the field of early childhood education than Teacher Tom. This is a book you will want to keep close to your soul." ~Daniel Hodgins, author of Boys: Changing the Classroom, Not the Child, and Get Over It! Relearning Guidance Practices

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Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Lies We Do and Must Tell

We teach our children that lying is morally wrong. At the same time, we also don't want them blurting out the less-than-generous things they've heard us saying about about Aunt Gladys behind her back, even if those things are objectively true. The bald-faced truth can be every bit as awful as a bald-faced lie.

As adults, most of us have learned how to commit lies of omission. To this day, one of my mom's mantra's is, "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all." We justify this kind of lie by telling ourselves that we've not actually lied because we've not "told" anything, we've merely "edited" ourselves for the sake of social-emotional harmony. 

But we've also gotten good at what are referred to as "little white" or pro-social lies, those untruths we tell with the idea of not embarrassing or hurting another person, or even with the intent of bucking them up. It would never occur to most of us, for instance, to tell the bald-faced truth, "Yes, those pants make your butt look big." Or more honestly, "All your pants make your butt look big . . . because it is big" which is a direct quote from an actual 3-year-old.

Your own kids probably have had to tell at least a few pro-social lies during the holiday season. According to a study performed by a team of Chinese and Canadian researchers, forty percent of 7-year-olds will tell a gift-giver that they like their gift even if they later admit to researchers that they don't like it. The percentage who avoid the bald-faced truth goes up as the children tested get older. Nearly ninety percent of 3-7 year olds will tell someone with lipstick on their nose that they "look okay" for a photograph, even though they will later tell researchers that the people did not look okay. 

This telling of pro-social lies isn't something that most of us attempt to teach children, possibly because we ourselves are still navigating it. But our kids seem to pick it up nevertheless, teaching themselves the nuanced differences between immoral or harmful lies and this other kind that we don't often speak about. In other words, most of us learn, without being taught, that the goal is to be basically honest without being a jerk.

I've had several autistic adults tell me that this was one of the most difficult lessons they had to learn as a child. Indeed, one friend first recognized of her own autism while trying to coach her autistic son through these lessons and remembering her own childhood confusion. "People told me not to lie, when they lied all the time. It was so confusing."

Animals don't lie, at least we don't think they do. Yes, they deceive -- that's what things like camouflage are all about -- but lying appears to be a product of language. We know one thing to be true, yet speak words that indicate something else. There are those who assert that lying is always wrong, that even those "little" pro-social lies are the moral equivalent making others into mere tools toward achieving our own dishonest ends. It's an extreme position to take, however, one that is certain to result in social ostracism. The relentlessly honest person is just as miserable to be around as the habitual liar. 

And as social animals, we are driven to be included, and to do so, we must learn to walk the line between honesty and being a jerk. This is why, at the end of the day, most of us, most of the time, hold kindness as a higher moral value than truth. Of course, there are times when only the truth will do, when it is the only moral way forward, and we should err on the side of truth when in doubt, but kindness also lives equally in those little lies we do and must tell. 


"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

If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here!

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Friday, December 22, 2023

When the Sun Stands Still

I've been awaking to darkness for the last few weeks. I’d have to say that the short winter days are one of the most challenging aspects of life in the northern tier, but things are turning around. The Winter Solstice occurred on the west coast of the US yesterday at 7:27 p.m., marking the end of our ever-longer nights and the return of light.

Not to lessen the significance of Christmas, Hanukkah or any of the other festivals of lights, but this astrological event is the original reason for the season. The Earth is tilted on its axis at, on average, a 23.5-degree angle and today is when the North Pole was farthest from the sun, causing it to appear to rise and set in the same place. We call it the first day of winter, and while the days will now grow longer by increments until the Summer Solstice in June, the average temperature of the “top” part of the globe will continue to drop as the oceans slowly lose the heat they still store from the warm summer months.

Humans can hardly think without resorting to metaphor and there is none more profound than this. It’s not an accident that this is a time for reflection as well as celebrating new beginnings. It’s not an accident that we seek out the people who mean the most to us, family and friends, those we love and without whom we live in perpetual winter. It’s not an accident that Christians retell the story of the birth of a child, the son of God, the light of hope in a darkened world. It’s not an accident that we give one another gifts and wish each other merriness, happiness and cheer – the darkness is passing, buck up, light is returning, have hope.

Winter is often used as a metaphor for death, but the comparison is superficial. The trees may not have leaves, the forests may have been temporarily emptied by hibernation and migration, there may be fewer children on the play grounds and at the beaches, and it may stay that way for some months to come, but we shouldn't mistake stillness for death.

The word “Solstice” comes from the Latin phrase for “sun stands still.” We spend the rest of the year in motion, moving forward, making progress. But if we can hold still long enough to listen, we hear winter whispering to slow down, take stock, cut back, rest, tend to the core of what makes life worthy of its name. All is calm. All is bright.

Even the sun stands still.


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.

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Thursday, December 21, 2023

The Promise of Human Diversity

My mind often takes the form of internal dialog. Sometimes it's a conversation with myself, but often there is an imaginary "other," such as an imagined blog post reader or a family member. Sometimes it takes the form of making a case with a skeptic in mind. Sometimes it's an argument with an adversary. Sometimes it's a conversation with my dog, who responds quite wittily. 

I'd always assumed that this was a common part of the experience of mind for all my fellow humans, but researchers tell us that as many as 70 percent of humans report they don't have inner monologues. When I first heard this I found it mind-blowing. I mean, how is it possible to think without it? I've since started asking people in my life about their own experiences and while my self-selected interview subjects mostly report some level of inner dialog, several have told me they don't have one at all. One confessed that she had always just assumed inner dialog was just a convention used in novels and movies. She found it equally mind-blowing to learn that it was an actual phenomenon.

If you ask me to imagine an apple, a stereotypical apple pops up in my mind. I might imagine it in my hand, on a counter, or hanging from a tree, all from a few feet away. Others apparently "see" the apple more close up, some from a wide-angle view, some can only see it in the context of a specific memory from their past. And some don't conjure an image of an apple at all. If you ask me to imagine myself skiing, I tend to see myself from the outside as if being tracked in a medium-shot by a camera, although others, if likewise prompted, see it all from a first-person perspective. Some of us form such photographic memories that we are later able to recreate them with uncanny accuracy, while I'm well aware that my own mind is more of a generalist when it comes to recall.

The human mind is one of the least understood things in the universe. Even what we think we know is fragmentary and incomplete. The study I linked to above was performed on Chinese college students and may or may not be relevant on a wider scale. For instance, I imagine that the same study applied to, say, geriatric subjects might reveal different results. I wonder what we would discover about the minds of people who have never been exposed to written language. And what of young children?

As educators, parents, and caretakers of very young children, we spend our days among minds that are largely pre-literate and that have not been exposed to nearly as many memories and experiences as Chinese college students or senior citizens. Certainly what goes on inside their heads is equally fascinating, diverse, and mind-blowing.

Over the past several decades we, as a society, have begun to have conversations around the framework of neurodiversity, the basic idea being that variations, even wide variations, in human cognition is normal. This certainly makes sense from the perspective of the evolutionary advantages of biodiversity.

Those of us who work with young children, who play with them, who have spent our lives amongst them, know the beauty of that diversity first hand. They delight us with their insights, the profundity of their accidental poetry and philosophy. They astound us with their ability to comprehend the world, framing it in ways that our adult minds have never considered. We discuss developmental stages and whatnot as passing phases, but it's also worth considering the value this kind of diversity across ages and stages brings to society writ large at any given moment. What do we lose as a culture when we relegate our youngest citizens to preschools instead of living with and amongst them on a daily basis?

This is why I say that our main job beyond keeping the children in our care safe is to "listen" to them with our whole selves, to strive in everything to understand them. We cannot assume that their minds are anything like our own. And we ought not fall into the trap of bigotry when it comes to how the minds of others work. Just as we're coming to finally learn (or re-learn) that we are not a superior species with a superior intellect, we are at our best when we don't place our own minds above or below anyone, even the youngest child. 

In their book The World of the Newborn, Daphne and Charles Maurer write:

"His world smells to him much as our world smells to us, but he does not perceive odors (as we do) . . . His world is a melee of pungent aromas -- and pungent sounds, and bitter-smelling sounds, and sweet-smelling sights, and sour-smelling pressures against the skin. If we could visit a newborn's world, we would think ourselves inside a hallucinogenic perfumery."

What an amazing glimpse into a mind I once had but have since lost. Obviously, there is no internal dialog occupying the mind of a newborn, nor images based on past experience, but there is something else that is both valid and true.

(Psychologist Kurt) Lewin's equation of human behavior is B=f(P,E), which states that our behavior (B) is a function (f) of our personality (P) in the environment (E). As observers, as day-to-day researchers, we can be relatively certain about observable behavior and the environment. It is the personality part of this equation that is the unknown, or rather, the less known. I go back and forth on the question of whether thinking, that process so essential to learning, is an aspect of behavior or personality. If it's behavior, then we can see it as a result of that unique and mysterious thing within the child interacting with the environment in which they find themselves. But what if thinking itself is personality? So the question, I guess, is whether personality precedes thought or is thought.

Does it matter? I don't think it does, at least in any practical way, but has often been the subject of my internal dialogs. 

As an adult who works with young children I strive to start with the assumption that no mind is broken or wrong, and that behavior gives me insight into the unique personality of the child in front of me. If I wish to help a child change a destructive or distressful behavior, then I must start with the aspects of the environment over which I have control. Is it too loud? Is it too dull? Is it too confined? Can we change the expectations or rules or schedule? So often, standard schools can't do this. I have many friends and colleagues who spend hundreds of hours every year writing IEPs (Individual Education Plans) for students whose behaviors don't "fit" the standard school environment, then hundreds more hours fighting to ensure those plans are implemented. When the environment won't or can't change, then all too often the blame falls on the child's personality or mind, which leads to attempts to change the child to fit the environment.

The truth is that this bigotry of "normal" is a bigotry against human diversity. Standard schooling is based on the myth of a standard mind. This is why play-based learning (as we call it in the early years) or self-directed learning is, for me, the gold standard. When we shed the confines of efficiency and standardization, creating instead flexible environments full of "loose parts" (including our own expectations among those loose parts), and instead assess our success based upon the engagement and self-motivation of each individual, we can finally begin to appreciate the true promise of human diversity.


"Teacher Tom, our caped hero of all things righteous in the early childhood world, inspires us to be heroic in our own work with young children, and reminds us that it is the children who are the heroes of the story as they embark on adventures of discovery, wonder, democracy, and play." ~Rusty Keeler
If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click 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, December 20, 2023

"Our Identity is All of This"

On Saturday mornings, I like to cycle to my nearby farmer's market. I always buy locally cultivated mushrooms and the most incredible "sprouted" nuts I've ever tasted. While there, I might also pick up some homemade soup, honey, or produce as well. On this most recent Saturday, I bought a carton of farm fresh eggs.

On Sunday morning I sautéed some pink trumpet mushrooms in olive oil with red onion, garlic and a few red pepper flakes, then topped it all with a poached egg. It was delicious, but an hour later I was feeling queasy. By midday, I was in such pain that I barely knew where I was. My entire existence was focused on my gut. This was not my first experience with food poisoning, but it was definitely the worst.

It's mostly behind me now, but looking back on that first 24 hours I don't recognize myself. As with most people who write as much as I do, I spend a lot of my time "in my head." Even when I'm riding my bike or hiking I tend to be lost in thought. Sometimes my wife says, "Stop obsessing!" but the truth is that most of the time I really enjoy noodling things over, trying to see them from other perspectives, questioning my motivations, and generally living in my head. 

I wasn't that person while in the throes. I went from being mostly head to all body. The nausea, the cramping, and the painful retching were the center of my existence. I don't need to go into any more details, we've all been there, but looking back on the past few days, I can see that eating that egg was, in a surprising way, a transformative experience. From the moment I swallowed it, there was no turning back as I rapidly became mindless, barely able to hydrate, unable even to change the channel on the television that droned at me. I couldn't read, I couldn't scroll, I couldn't even sit up. I was a body and only a body.

In an interview in New Philosopher magazine, Dr. Christine Caldwell, professor emeritus in the Somatic Counseling Program at Naropa University where she teaches somatic counseling and clinical neuroscience, says, "I have a tendency to take the radical notion that we are actually only a body, really that's who we are, a body, and that thinking, our mental lives, is just one thing that our body does along with breathing and moving and digesting and all of those things."

I read this months ago, but in the aftermath I've dug up the interview again.

When asked, "Are you almost suggesting that the mind is secondary, that the body comes first?" Caldwell answers, "No, I think that would be (an) example of an opposite bias . . . I think if we put this idea of primary and secondary and all of that, if we overlay it, I think we're making a mistake . . . (W)ho I am as I unfold all the different successive present moments, who I am is always putting something a little bit more in the foreground and putting other things in the background . . . (T)here are moments where my thinking body is in the foreground, and then there are moments when my sensing body is in the foreground, and moments when my moving body is in the foreground. And so, it's a constant kind of foreground and background, whatever is useful at the time."

I've read Caldwell's book, Bodyfulness, from which I've often quoted on this blog, but until now I didn't really understand this point (which I won't call "balance" because that too smacks of "opposite bias," with one way of being on each end of the scales). Or rather, I had understood an aspect of it with my mind, but now I really understand it, in a horrible way, through my sensing body. (Since all I could really do was lie in a fetal curl, my moving body was in the background with my thinking body.)

As you can tell, my thinking body is back in the foreground, which is where it has to be in order to write. But I can't help but wonder what it costs me to live so much of my life with my thinking body in the foreground, even while using my sensing and moving body. In Bodyfulness, Caldwell teaches readers techniques for bringing our bodies more often into the foreground.

I can't help but wonder what it costs all of us to have universal schooling that concentrates almost exclusively on the thinking body. As educator and author bell hooks wrote, "(M)any of us have accepted the notion that there is a split between the body and the mind. Believing this, individuals enter the classroom to teach as though only the mind is present, and not the body."

There is plenty of evidence that movement enhances learning, but I expect that self-directed movement creates an exponentially greater enhancement. But it's more than that: it's not just the brain that learns. Indeed, our thinking and moving bodies are activated by our sensing body. In the case of my lost Sunday, my body was the teacher.

Right now, as I write, my thinking body is in charge.

Later, when I get on my bike, if I can allow it to, my moving body will take over.

It's when it's all working together, ebbing and flowing from moment to moment, we call it play. When young children are made to sit, quietly, focused for extended periods of time, we are essentially forbidding them from learning, from being, at full-capacity. This is why play is so vital for all of us, but especially for young children. While at play the natural flowing movement between background and foreground is allowed to happen. When we force (or attempt to force because we mostly fail at it) children to keep their thinking brain unnaturally in the foreground, we limit their capacity for learning. We teach them the dubious lesson of fighting back their sensing and moving body, even punishing or shaming them when they can't resist the most natural thing in the world. None of this happens when we allow children the freedom to be their full, embodied selves through play.

As Caldwell says, "That's a misperception that our identity is essentially a mental being . . . Our identity is all of this." 


"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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Tuesday, December 19, 2023

The Ugly Habit of "Tough Love"

Long ago, I became acquainted with a middle school teacher who came across as a smart, jolly guy. Talking with him in social circumstances, he gave me the impression that he was likely one of the more popular faculty members at his school: casual, hip, and funny. I was a new teacher back then and not knowing many male educators, I looked at him as a potential role model. One day, we were talking about handling difficult behaviors. I explained how I was working with children on some challenging issues. He put his hand on my back condescendingly as he informed me that "it gets a lot worse" in middle school. "If you could see what I deal with, you'd be a lot more firm in preschool. That's where we can nip it in the bud." Then he explained his approach to me, "Oh, I'm their best friend as long as things are going well, but the second they cross the line, I come down like a house of bricks."

I let our friendship cool after that. Maybe, I thought, middle schoolers really are that much different than preschoolers, but there was no way I would ever come down like a "house of bricks" on anyone, let alone the young children with whom I was entrusted. Not long after this, another friend, a child psychologist, told me about an eight-year-old boy he had seen for the first time because his parents were concerned about his behaviors. The boy came into his office for his getting-to-know-you appointment, took his seat, and declared, "I'm bad because I'm sad." As my friend said, "That kid saved his parents a lot of money."

If you listen to some people, maybe even most people, you would think that the leading theory for why children behave badly is that they need more "tough love," the idea being to treat kids harshly, sternly, or punitively "for their own good." This will, the theory goes, somehow scare them straight. There are lots of variations on this idea, ranging from assaulting children under the label of spanking to systematically restricting their freedom or taking away their "privileges" until the desired behavior or attitudes are achieved. It's a method not supported by science, of course, because the underlying cause of destructive behavior, as this insightful eight-year-old knew, is almost always sadness.

You can't "house of bricks" someone out of sadness. You can't punish it out of them. You might be able to frighten or shame someone enough that they refrain from bad behavior for a time, but since the sadness hasn't been addressed it will continue to come out destructively, perhaps turned inward, but destructive nevertheless. The therapist's job is to help patients discover the source of their sadness, which might be hidden under a hard shell of anger, especially with older children and adults who have had decades during which to suppress their emotions. Only then, only once the sadness is identified, can healing start to happen. Tough love will only add fear and shame to the already heavy burden of sadness.

As Oscar Wilde wrote, "The best way to make children good is to make them happy," which is such an obvious, common sense thing that I wonder how such toxic ideas like "tough love" ever come into existence. But we see this punitive mentally everywhere we look. It's so pervasive that children were even being policed by their teachers through their computers during the pandemic, with expulsion and even threats of arrest being applied to children (not to mention the petty day-to-day policing of being required to ask permission to use the toilet while in their own homes). It's the same counterproductive "house of bricks" approach used in society at large. Just as Black and Brown Americans are far more likely to find themselves the victims of harsh policing, black and brown children are more than three times more likely to face harsh policing at school for the same behavior as white children. The tough love of policing can only make a person sad, afraid, and ashamed, emotions that always lead, ultimately, to destructive behavior. 

The secret to breaking the ugly habits of "tough love" is to listen, of course, to actually be their "best friend" without the conditional threat of a "house of bricks." I could even argue that listening is what actual love looks like. This is true for all people, but particularly for our youngest citizens. That middle school teacher was right about one thing, we can nip it in the bud, but only if we listen, only if we give children the opportunity to talk their way through to their sadness. Above all, that is the curriculum. Of course, we can never make another person happy as Wilde suggests, but when we listen, when we love, we empower our fellow humans to make themselves happy. From there, anything is possible.


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Few people are better qualified to support people working in the field of early childhood education than Teacher Tom. This is a book you will want to keep close to your soul." ~Daniel Hodgins, author of Boys: Changing the Classroom, Not the Child, and Get Over It! Relearning Guidance Practices

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, December 18, 2023

"Children do Not Like Being Incompetent Any More than They Like Being Ignorant"

"Children do not like being incompetent any more than they like being ignorant. They want to learn how to do, and do well, the things they see being done by bigger people around them. This is why they soon find school such a disappointment; they so seldom get a chance to learn anything important or do anything real. But many of the defenders of childhood, in or out of school, seem to have this vested interest in the children's incompetence, which they often call "letting the child be a child." ~John Holt

As a two-year-old, Angus found school disappointing. 

"He likes school," his mother told me one day as we watched him play alone in his own corner of the playground, "But he'd like it a lot better without the other kids." She said it with a chuckle, one that told me she appreciated it as an eccentricity. I didn't tell her that it's quite common for children her son's age to feel that way mainly because to do so would have been to risk robbing her of her delight.

As a cooperative school, Angus' mother was always welcome in the classroom and she had so far opted to be there every day. During the first week of school she told me of how she had prepared Angus by telling him that school was a place where he would learn stuff. He had interpreted this to mean that he was going to learn to drive a Metro bus.

He was passionate about Metro buses. He was disdainful of school busses. And he actively disliked the toy school school busses we had in the classroom. He came by his driving interest honestly. Riding Metro was often how he and his mother spent their days away from preschool. Sometimes they would choose a destination, figure out their route, then execute their plan. Other times, they would simply choose a specific line out of curiosity and ride it to see where it went. 

One day, I told him I needed to get to my doctor's office in Lake City after school and he informed me which buses I would need to take to get there from the school. When I told him I had to go home first, he asked me where I lived, then recalculated based on this new starting point. One day as we played together I began to quiz him on bus routes. "Where does the 62 go?" "How about the 550?" As far as I could tell, he knew his stuff.

After absorbing the disappointment of not getting to learn to drive a bus, he settled into a routine of pretending to be a bus driver, sitting alone, usually with his back to the rest of us, employing whatever circular shaped object he could find as a steering wheel. To be allowed into his private world one had to wait until he "stopped" and opened the door for you. His expectation was then that you sat behind him. He  would then speak to you, eyes forward, hands on the wheel. When he was done with you, he would inform you that you had arrived at your stop, then pantomime opening the door to let you out.

As he got older, he began to "drive" his bus around the playground (i.e., holding his steering wheel and running). Before long he had established several stops. Children would often wait at one of the stops for Angus, who would transport them (i.e., the children ran along behind him) to as near their destinations as the route would allow. He spent one morning making construction paper "Orca Cards," which is what Metro calls its passes, and distributed them to his classmates. It irritated him that he had to make new ones the following day. "They're supposed to keep them in their wallets!" He carried a wallet in which he carried his own real and pretend Orca Cards. Eventually, other children were inspired to start their own bus routes and for a time we had an entire mass transit system on our playground.

As he got older, he became interested in other things, including the other kids, but never did take much of an interest in any of our toys. When he played "construction," he eschewed such childish things as blocks and Legos. He needed real "lumber," a hammer, a saw, and "a lot of nails." I once offered him a yellow costume construction worker helmet, but he rejected it with the wave of his hand. When his attentions turned to insects, only the real things would do. No picture books or plastic bugs for him. He was even suspicious of the lady bugs we raised in the classroom from larva because we kept them indoors rather than outdoors. He didn't use the words "natural habitat," but it was there in his assessment of the situation.

Angus expressed himself well, even as a two-year-old which caused the other adults to consider him "advanced" or even "gifted," but the more I got to know him over the years, the more I came to understand him as simply more "natural" than most of his classmates. I once visited his home. There were no toys in evidence, no safety gates, and no childish art taped up on the walls. The only things that might have caused one to suspect a child lived there were the muddy holes dug in the backyard, the odd collections of household items to be spied around the house, and the bedroom wall covered in framed photographs of Metro busses.

Today, when I hear the expression, "Let the child be a child," Angus is the first person who comes to mind.


"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

If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click 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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