Thursday, May 23, 2024

How We Can Begin to Overcome Our Fears and Let Our Children Fail

In a recently publish paper a team of scientists and philosophers propose what they are calling the "Law of Increasing Functional Information." In a nutshell, they theorize that it's not just biological systems, but all complex systems -- from planets to atoms -- that operate according to the principles of evolution. This law is being suggested as a "missing" law of physics that, theoretically, could stand alongside the better known laws of motion, gravity, electromagnetism, and thermodynamics.

I'm sure that most physicists, biologists, and philosophers are skeptical, but, of course, skepticism is their job. The next step in the scientific process is for others to try to disprove all or parts of the proposed theory, followed by still others will try to fill in the holes that have been poked, then more skepticism, and so on, always approaching truth, but never fully getting there, which is why we call it a scientific "process."

But as a layperson considering this idea, it makes sense. Formally, the theory is expressed as: "The functional information of a system will increase (i.e., the system will evolve) if many different configurations of the system undergo selection for one or more functions." When I put this into my own words, this means that if any system, be it a planet or an atom, is to sustain itself, it must adapt. If it doesn't adapt, the system falls apart, just as a species will cease to exist if it fails to adapt. Put another way, when we look around us, we find a universe full of systems -- biological, geological, molecular, astronomical -- that exist because they have evolved to exist. What we don't see, what we can't see, are those systems that failed because, well, they don't exist.

In anthropomorphic terms, I often think of evolution as a process by which the universe says: "Given the circumstances, I'm going to do this."

Happy humans, humans who thrive, tend to be pretty good at this. We all suffer bumps, bruises, and blockades in life, we all suffer disappointment, fear, and pain. But, as the idiom urges us, the most life affirming response is to use those lemons to make lemonade. 

Learning this basic lesson is one of the primary functions of childhood. The process of learning to walk is one of falling down and getting back up over and over. The process of learning to talk is one of going from nonsense to sense. The process of learning to feed oneself begins with smashing food into our foreheads until we finally figure out how to target our mouths. When we see babies engaged in these processes, we see struggle, we see frustration, we see failure, but we all know that this is a natural part of learning to adapt and grow. And when our babies do finally succeed, we see their joy as they taste the sweet lemonade of their own efforts, which, in turn, inspires them to even more feats of independence.

If we hover over them in order to catch them before they fall, if we don't allow them their nonsense, if we insist on hand-feeding them in order to avoid the mess, we create circumstances in which the best way to adapt is to get others to do stuff for them -- to get others to make their lemonade for them. This is all well and good until they get a little older and find out that our world is a place where we must squeeze our own lemons.

Educators from preschool to college report their students are more fragile and less resilient than ever. We hear that they are entitled, that they are less likely to persevere in the face of difficulty, and that they equate feeling uncomfortable with being unsafe. Alarmingly, we are currently experiencing rates of childhood anxiety and depression at the highest levels ever seen (based on methodologies that have been used since at least the middle of the last century).

In my recent conversation with Lenore Skenazy on Teacher Tom's Podcast, we discuss the psychological principle (which I believe was first proposed by the great psychologist William James) that behavioral change is the most effect way to affect cognitive change. Which is to say, the way to help our children overcome their anxiety, depression, and passiveness is to, gently, remove the crutch of helicoptering adults, and allow them to genuinely experience frustrations, difficulties, and even, at least to a degree, risk. To allow them to confront challenging circumstances and to, on their own, struggle to adapt. As Lenore says, the definition of anxiety is the feeling of "I can't handle this." It's only through childhood independence, that we actually learn that we can handle this.

Yesterday, I wrote about a recent University of Michigan study that found that most adults, at least at some level, understand the value of childhood independence, but largely fail at providing their children opportunities to experience it, most of whom don't even allow their elementary-aged children to make their own snacks or to go down an aisle alone while grocery shopping.

It's obviously due to a culture of fear. Fear for our children's safety, yes, but also fear that if we do allow our children to, say, walk to school or to a neighborhood playground on their own, we will be judged or even arrested for "endangering" our children.

The goal of Lenore's non-profit, Let Grow, which she founded in partnership with social psychologist and best-selling author Jonathan Haidt (The Anxious Generation), is to make childhood independence easy so that parents, and other adults, can begin to see what their children are truly capable of doing. Let Grow partners with schools in many ways, but the first step is a homework assignment: To go home and do something new -- with your grownups' permission -- but without your grownup. "It's liberating for both kids and their parents," Lenore says.

Lenore tells us that many of the participants in Let Grow's homework assignment, both children and adults, are at first skeptical. She says that she has been struck by how many of the kids, when reporting on, say, baking cookies for the first time say something like, "I was afraid I was going to burn down the house." 

This is a first step in larger project of pulling back from this debilitating habit of catastrophic thinking, in which we see even the tiniest possibility of risk as too much risk; every potential danger, no matter how remote, as too much danger; and that every failure will result in, well, burning down the house.

"Given the circumstances, I'm going to do this." Whether or not the "Law of Increasing Functional Information" turns out to be a true "missing" law of physics, there is no doubt that happy humans, humans who thrive, are the ones who have learned this approach to life's challenges. 


People who want to embrace play-based learning are constantly asking me which of my 4,000+ posts to start with, so I reread all of them and curated my 10 favorites for you! To download my free booklet featuring by Top 10 Posts About the Power of Play-Based Learning, click here. It's my present to you. I hope you find it inspiring.

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