Children Are Whole People

Months ago in some online comment Janet Lansbury wrote:

“Maybe it’s because I was encouraged by a mentor (infant specialist Magda Gerber) to view babies as whole people from the get-go, not my projects, not reflections or extensions of me, their emergent personalities never felt like my responsibility.”

That babies are whole people is actually a revolutionary idea and one that I hope takes hold in the hearts and minds of all those who care about not just babies but children and their education. Unfortunately, acting as if children are incomplete adults is still the dominant way, and ignores the fact that adults are incomplete, too.

Children when they enter kindergarten have already logged upwards of 43,800 hours of practice mastering the world. As they march or meander or charge or slink into school for the first time they actually ARE a “whole person” on their own mission to continue their brain development in the presence of other classmates, trusting the adults to present the appropriate challenges.

All good kindergarten teachers have learned the art of educating without controlling. Educators wants to lead the child’s character into the world, not direct it. They know that correct behavior is not sustainable if the motive for it does not come from within. Rather than seeing the child as the object of their efforts, they know it is more effective to see the child as the subject of a marvelous story about a journey into the world: the story of a unique genius guiding our hero into adventures which present challenges she learns to master. In this respect the only difference between a five and a fifty-year old is the type of challenge they are taking on. Both remain relatively imperfect and relatively ready for the challenge.

I have a fantasy that someday the conversation at a parent-teacher conference will go something like this:

Parent1: “What have you noticed about my child’s genius.”

Teacher (big smile): “Just yesterday Malka did the coolest thing. She and her three other table mates were working on a math problem and the two boys were getting into an argument about the lowest common denominator. Malka patiently listened to the dispute for a minute and then calmly took a clean piece of paper, put it on top of the paper they were arguing over, leaned in, almost putting her head between them, took a pencil and showed them how she had done the problem.  She was so compelling (and had the right answer) that they simply had to stop. She didn’t raise her voice. She almost didn’t say anything.”

Parent1: “Yes, she really doesn’t like conflict.”

Parent2: “Yes, but you know it’s more like she isn’t afraid of conflict. Remember when she was five and her cousins were over and started fighting over the remote and she tried to get them to stop and finally just went over to the TV and turned it off? That was amazing.”

Parent1: “I know. That right. She’s pretty unflappable.”

Teacher: “Yes, she is actually fearless. I am going to start noticing how she handles conflict more. In fact, I will email you next time I see it in action.”

Of course, in a parent teacher conference it is important to go over academic progress and social adjustment, but bringing out the best in children requires keeping the child’s genius at the center of all those schooly discussions about reading challenges and math phobia and giftedness and attention deficits and making friends. In fact, how about this for a crazy idea: the student calls the conference and chairs the meeting? What if the student reported on what was hard and what was easy? After all, this is the meeting of the Malka support team, isn’t it? And who better to lead it than Malka herself?

Seeing children as whole people and incomplete just like the rest of us, will make us better at helping them make their way in the world.

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8 thoughts on “Children Are Whole People

  1. “In fact, how about this for a crazy idea: the student calls the conference and chairs the meeting? What if the student reported on what was hard and what was easy?” I love it!

    Thanks for reminding us – parents and teachers – that we need to focus on the glass half full, not the one that’s half empty. That one little change in mindset can create a whole new world in homes and schools.

  2. Children will be in the end the sum of their own unique experiences… not ours. Sometimes the emergence of their personality and character seems inevitable and we can really only serve as a guide or leader to help them see their strengths and help them overcome their challenges. Being close enough to a child to see the process is very exciting and as parent sometimes looking at your own child’s short history you feel like their personality is being excavated rather than formed; like it was there in utero. Sometimes I think all the different relationships with teachers, siblings and parents let children see different sides of themselves get polished and exposed, like old fossils brought to light.

  3. Great way to re-conceive and reframe childhood.
    I have these three wheels I use with clients that tries to explain this concept. The first one is solid with each section – thoughts, feelings, actions, sensations and core self – completely available and open to possibility. The next two have pieces cut out where we shut down parts of our wholeness because we don’t get to try it out or because the world tells us to hide these parts. It’s not whether we start out whole, it’s how much the world lets us keep.

    (As an aside – when I work with couples – I put the second and third wheels together and those holes disappear. That’s one of the reasons we are attracted to people who are so different than us. They start out making us feel whole again. Later we resent our partners’ holes because we have to carry them there but that’s another story…)

    Anyway – nice article Rick – as always. Thanks for sharing it.

  4. “All good kindergarten teachers have learned the art of educating without controlling.” I have found that to be true. Advice and demands are not as important as is the culture the teacher leads. I can’t think of a Kindergarten teacher that didn’t know it.

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