One day when my daughter Brooke was one, she decided to take a walk. She opened the screen door to our summerhouse, stepped onto the flagstone walk, and headed down the dirt road that led into the woods. She walked with a purpose. She didn’t say anything. She didn’t even look at me. In fact, it was as if I weren’t even there. She just stood up from the pots and pans she had been banging on the kitchen floor, made for the screen door, and pushed it open.
As you can imagine, my first reaction was to stop her. I thought, “I can’t let a child that age, who has barely learned how to walk, just walk out the door without even checking with me. Where could she be going? All sorts of things could happen to her. A responsible father does not let his one-year-old daughter take off into the woods on her own. It’s just too dangerous.” In that first second, another thought arose: “Wait—there is no immediate danger. Let’s just keep an eye on her and see what happens. I don’t have to act … yet.” And so I just watched.
As these thoughts collided, I detected the barest flicker of yet another thought: “She is acting as if she knows what she is doing!” Now, when people act as if they know what they are doing, I hesitate to interfere with their decisions. And Brooke’s whole demeanor communicated “I don’t need your help.” So I decided to follow her.
By the time she reached the dirt road that led into the woods, I had something of a plan. Somehow, I had to do four things at once: keep out of the situation, watch her, let her go, and keep her safe. A voice from deep inside told me that her decision to do this on her own needed to be honored. She did not look around for me, so I didn’t call her attention to my presence, but instead followed at a careful distance, hiding behind trees and sneaking around corners, hoping she wouldn’t see me. And she didn’t.
As she trod the dusty gravel, shadows of leaves played on her hair. I kept my feet to the tire tracks, where I’d be less likely to kick a stone or break a stick. Around the first corner, she skirted the mud puddle. Taking the second corner, she looked up at the giant paper birch. She seemed almost to march as she followed the winding road all two hundred yards of its length through the woods.
When she came to the place where the driveway met the main road that went around the lake, she looked to the right and to the left just like an adult, or an older child who had been listening to adults about looking both ways. Her demeanor said, “This is my world, and I am comfortable in it.” Fearless, she seemed to be mapping out her place in this world: “Let’s see, what’s down this way? What’s up that way?” She paused for a couple of seconds, as if to ponder the situation, and then, very decisively, turned around and started home.
When she got back to the house, she went back to her place on the floor as if nothing special had happened and, still, as if I weren’t even there. She did not come running to me so I could welcome her home. She did not tell me about her adventure. It was something she had done, and it was complete.
In the summer of 1967, in the outback of Connecticut—Litchfield County—I judged the environment safe enough for this adventure. There were wild animals, but the only ones I had seen in fifteen years were, as we said, “more afraid of us than we are of them.” Cars were a danger, but they did not come down the driveway often, and they usually came slowly when they did.
Nonetheless, I am sure many parents would find my behavior at that moment in Brooke’s life irresponsible. I am sure most parents would not have let her wander on her own. They might have stopped her. They might have gone with her. I am pretty sure they would not have done what I did. It is not normal parent behavior, these days, to let a child launch off into the world on her own like that—certainly not at that age. And yet, as I look back forty-some years later, for that child in that moment, it was an example of brilliant parenting. Would that I were always so brilliant.
What inspired Brooke’sadventure at the age of one? After all these years of fathering, teaching, and running schools, I think I know. At least, I have chosen a name for it: genius—genius as in the guiding spirit of a person, her teacher within, the voice of her character.
More important than naming it, I have learned to trust it. In fact, I know trusting that “something” is the bedrock of all effective work with children—and, for that matter, with all people. As an educator, I have learned that believing in it, watching for it, encouraging it, and letting it work its way out into the world is the secret of education.
In fact, I define education as leading of this genius out into the world to function gracefully and effectively within it. In order to do a good job of this one needs to acquire many disciplines, and many of these are counter-cultural, or counter-intuitive, or well, not normal. Yet when one learns and practices them, one gets the satisfaction of actually making a positive difference in the life of someone else. I put these disciplines forward in this blog each week.
Our children are on their own journey. This journey is guided by their soul. In attempting to participate in their education, we have to partner with their genius. Partnering with this genius has, retrospectively, turned out to be the work of my life. There is nothing that challenges me more than helping people find and mobilize for their own growth that inner something. Few things give me more joy.
Reflecting on the joys and pains of working with others seems to come easy to me. Since Brooke took her walk, I have had three more children, and as of today I now have four grand children. While I was learning the hard way about how to raise my four children I also taught hundreds of others. In the last 35 years I have been the principal of four schools in four different American cities. Not one of those 7,000 days of school went by that I was not faced with the need to help at least one person learn something. As I sit in front of my keyboard, moments come flooding back to me, and what I learned from these experiences falls into place.
I will post a new story twice a month with the intention that each week there might be a discipline or two that a parent or teacher could add to their repertoire. The stories in this blog, however, are not presented as blueprints for success. You will probably never have an opportunity to copy them. This is not a list of rules that you won’t remember anyway in moments of crisis. There is no formal training for parenthood as there is for teachers, and do not intend to fill this gap. The vignettes are designed to provide enjoyment in the miracle of it all, as well as solace in the difficulty of it all. They put parents and teachers everywhere in the same communion: people who have decided to take responsibility for children and know that, to be effective, they have to keep finding the job inspiring.
Whether or not you worry about your children, whether or not you are able to hang on to that wonderment at their divine perfection, our number-one job as parents and educators is to notice the children in our care and to delight in them. I hope this blog will help you both notice and delight. It may also give you perspective and guidance on how to overcome your fears and perhaps offer an idea or two about how to handle tough situations.
If I could be granted one wish for our children, it would be that their parents and teachers would keep their focus on the long run, entrusting the trials, struggles, and sufferings of the short run to the kids. I propose a shift in values from test scores to enthusiasm, from achievement to challenge, from getting into high school and college to getting the most out of it when you get there, from perfect behavior to learning from mistakes, from measuring up to making something of yourself, from independence to interdependence, from goodness to integrity, from fear to love.