After reading “Daphne goes to School” (last week’s post) Daphne’s mother wrote me a long email which she concluded with: “I guess the question I am asking is: “How do we encourage exploration and confidence without leaving a child unprepared for the judgment and criticism they’ll have to deal with later on? And at what point does “education” end and “the real world” begin? Or is your idea that an environment of experimentation and exploration early on will create a confident, centered person who isn’t shaken by the competition that will come?”
The question is actually a Gordian knot of interrelated questions and assumptions expressing some common confusions in our culture, confusions at the heart of what plagues children and our schools. Let’s tease them apart.
Exploration is what children do. They are wired to explore. Therefore, we’re not so much “encouraging” exploration as building education on the bedrock of exploration.
Confidence cannot really be encouraged. We build our own confidence by learning the disciplines of exploring the world in a way that produces a reasonable harmony between our needs, values and interests and the realities of the environment. This requires an accurate understanding of our environment ($5.00 minus $.50 equals $4.50 every time). And here parents and teachers have a major role as a source of data (correcting mistakes, telling the truth, providing useful feedback). For best results, therefore, we have to make correcting fun rather than something we wish we didn’t have to do.
Adults leave children unprepared for judgment when we a) withhold judgment thus depriving the child of information necessary for their confidence-building exploration, and/or b) do all the judging for them, thus giving them no practice in making good judgments, themselves.
Criticism is a good thing, because it helps children steer toward their goals. Criticism gets its negative connotations from being delivered with frustration, anger, hostility and a general adult feeling: “I shouldn’t have to be doing this.”
Education is leading each child’s genius out into the world to function effectively and gracefully within it. It never ends. It is the essence of life.
The real world is always with us and never begins and never ends. Helping children confront reality is one of the main roles of teachers and parents. As children create their own mental frameworks, it is best if ours have a close relation to reality itself. An accurate (rather than a “positive”) outlook is the first predictor of success. A second is the degree to which these mental frameworks or “mindsets” are open to new information and able to change.
An environment of experimentation and exploration early on and forever will, indeed, create a confident, centered person who is resilient when buffeted by inevitable competition, challenge, frustration, disappointment, failure, and loss, AND the design of this environment is critical. It is not just an “unstructured” environment with a laissez-faire attitude, where the adults watch, cheer and praise. It is not about “backing off,” but being disciplined. Some of the key disciplines are listed (without explanation) in “The Graduation Speech I Never Gave” below.
I call them disciplines, because one has to learn them. Though most of them feel good when used properly, they don’t exactly come naturally and some are downright counter-cultural.
I’ll never forget hearing a teacher speaking angrily to a class out in front of my office: “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a hundred times: No talking in the hallway!”
When I talked to the teacher about it later she asserted: “All this freedom these kids have! They need to be taught some lessons!” I said that indeed they need to learn some lessons: “I don’t have a problem with your educational objective; I want them quiet in the hallway, too. I do have a problem with how you are teaching. It is obviously no good. You have taught this lesson 99 times, and they haven’t learned it.”
It takes a little practice to stop one’s frustration-based habitual behavior and engage in behavior which actually helps the child function more effectively in the world. Instead of saying one more time: “I JUST DON’T UNDERSTAND WHY YOU CAN’T GET READY FOR SCHOOL ON TIME!” we might click into our rational, scientific mind and try out some surprising behavior.
We might say, “Hmmm. I notice that you are usually about ten minutes late. Let’s analyze the situation. Let’s make a list of all the things that you do between waking up and getting into the car and time them. I’ll buy a stopwatch, and we can do research on how much time each activity takes. Then you can have a better idea of what you need to change. If you’d like we can look at the data together, and I will help you make a plan. For instance, we might learn that you have to get up earlier. That would mean that you have to go to bed earlier. Or maybe you are wasting energy somewhere. There is only one constant: you must be in the classroom by 8:30.”
(Don’t get Mad; get scientific.)
Children need us to 1) respect them as decision makers 2) define and maintain boundaries for them, and 3) love them unconditionally. When we do all three, we are acting as if we believe in their genius.
In Daphne’s Mom’s email she also wrote that parents are “trying to be the best parents they can be (and can be quite unforgiving of themselves for the mistakes they make.)” More on this next week.