Darkened sky

One frightening thing ended last night in Boston.  Many other things have only just begun: the rehabilitation of severe injuries, grieving for lost loved ones, new fears and anxieties.  And with all of it, myriad speculation and assessment.

After looking over the news and commentary this morning, I picked up a book I’ve just started reading about play therapy.  It opens with an anecdote – teachers and psychologists attempt to make sense of a child’s behavior.  And then the author turns from her narrative to the following passage, which I thought worth considering at a time like this one, with so much to mourn and so many opportunities to pass judgment, to draw conclusion, to set opinion in stone, in so many directions:

“Out again into the night where the dulled light obscures the decisive lines of reality and casts over the immediate world a kindly vagueness.  Now, it is not a matter of all black and white.  It is not a matter of “this is it” because there is no glaring light of unequivocal evidence in which one sees a thing as it is and one knows the answers.  The darkened sky gives growing room for softened judgments, for suspended indictments, for emotional hospitality. What is, seen in such light, seems to have so many possibilities that definitiveness becomes ambiguous. Here the benefit of a doubt can flourish and survive long enough to force considerations of the scope and limitations of human evaluation.” (Virginia Axline, Dibs in Search of Self)

Two twos

John Holt once wrote (in Instead of Education) that no one can truly say yes to an idea unless he can freely say no to it.

Yesterday I played a round of Yahtzee with an eight year-old.  This particular eight year-old tends to favor instant gratification, a tendency which on one occasion during our game was putting his chances of winning in peril.  He loves a fast pace, and he usually acts quickly but also enjoys winning.  Because he is new to the game and its nuances, I thought it only fair to point out the potential cost of the choice he was about to make.

I should say before I proceed with the story that I have been meeting with this child for several weeks, because he’s been having difficulty in school and his mom is hoping to find a way for him to exist there with less stress and anxiety.  It has been my experience that it’s impossible to empower a person to receive ideas for making his or her experience of any situation better, (or his or her performance in any situation better if that’s the goal), without, as John Holt suggests, giving that person the opportunity to decline any suggestions made. Young people are so often trapped in patterns of generalized resistance, after many years of being bossed into things by adults whether or not those things serve and support, that they miss out on input that they might actually want.  (I wrote about this in more detail here.)  So with this child I have been, in the context of games and other activities he engaged in with me by choice, offering suggestions with the understanding that he would likely say No thank you at least as often as said Yes (if not always). He has in fact said No thank you many many times.

So when it came time for him to choose between recording a pair of twos on his scoresheet or recording a pair of threes, I once again offered a suggestion knowing that it might well be turned down.

Me: Hey, I have a suggestion for you about this one.  Do you want to hear it?

Him: Um… yes.

He stopped moving for the few seconds it took me to explain, glancing back and forth between my face and the dice.

Me: I know it probably seems better to take the two threes because that’s six, and the two twos is only four, but the thing is that by taking less than three of the threes, you sort of lose three.  If you take less than three twos, you only lose two.  Which makes it a little easier to catch up later on, if you still want to get the bonus. I just thought you might want to know that before you decide, but of course it’s up to you.

He didn’t quite understand, which isn’t surprising, given the complexity of the argument and my lackluster presentation of it. And I know he was skeptical, because he knows that in games, nearly always, more is better.  But he opted to take the twos instead of the threes. As he wrote the four carefully on his scorecard, he said to himself quietly “I think I’d like to lose less here.”

I’m certain that if I hadn’t accepted weeks’ worth of No thank yous he wouldn’t even have bothered to listen, though he might have pretended to, and might even have followed my advice. But in this case he did listen, enough to say back to himself the part of what I’d said that seemed consistent with his commitment in the game (that is, winning, which presumably seemed related to “losing less”). He listened, considered, and then acted according to the new information he had and his own commitment.  He truly said yes to it.

It could seem as though all that was at stake here were two measly Yahtzee points.  But imagine the difference it can make to a young person to feel free to evaluate the potential value of a piece of advice.

When we stop trying to force kids to take input, they become free to actually receive it.

And then what happens is that it becomes possible for them to use adults for the purpose for which we are best suited and for which they actually need us:  to be team members with them as they navigate their way through a complicated world; to let them know which things we’ve found to be true for ourselves and what has worked for us, in case it might help them find what’s true for them and will work for them.

Bug periods

I’m reading the autobiography of the entomologist Edward Wilson who began studying the behavior of very small creatures as a young child in Alabama in the 1930s. I picked it up in part because I know lots of children with sustained and sustaining fascination with small wildlife, and in part because I’m generally interested in the forces that focus any person on a thing the way Wilson has remained focused on ants.

Also, when Howard Gardner revisited his multiple intelligence theory, one of the intelligences he added to his original seven is a naturalist intelligence.  Wilson writes “Most children have a bug period.  I never grew out of mine.” I think there’s an extent, as he suggests, to which there may well be something about bugs in particular that enchants many young minds just by virtue of recent arrival on the planet.  But I also wonder how many of us “grow out of” the pursuits and fascinations we’re best suited to because they don’t sufficiently impress the adults around us or bear upon the things that have been declared of import.  Many a critical eye would have looked upon (and likely did look upon) Wilson’s early attention on the machinations of the ant community as a frivolous waste of time, just as many such eyes look upon much of what young children do now as such.  A book like this one sets out in part to identify and articulate the forces that held steady in the face of whatever opposed perseverance, and even after only 50 pages it’s clear that in Wilson’s case those forces were many.

One of the things that makes it tricky to know exactly how to support and guide a young person is that often the very things that throw themselves in our paths, compelling us to adjust ourselves to get around or through them, are the ones that lead us to our best or most fulfilling work.  I’ve often heard that fact used as justification for insisting that young people continue to suffer and struggle at the hand of academic training even when they’re craving other kinds of work.  But it seems to me as though the world manages to offer up plenty, to each of us, in the way of heartbreak and other hindrance that we needn’t go looking for ways to provide it for one another in the interest of building strength and character.

But I digress a bit.  I’m wondering this morning what it would be like if we directed our attention to the fascinations of children such that our strongest communication to them was of curiosity. Of an eagerness to find out, over time, which of the many things that enthrall them when they are very young they will leave behind, having wrung all the learning and growth from them that they need, and which they will keep as companions for the rest their journeys.

Toward an ideology for healing

Sort of continued from last time…

Again from Phillipé Aries’ Centuries of Childhood: “Youth gave an impression of secretly possessing new values capable of reviving an aged and sclerosed society.”

I can’t help wondering this: What would the world be like if we thought about children this way?

Though we say fanciful things about them – “Oh, they’re so innocent and sweet,” “oh, give them the chance to be kids,” etc., our fundamental position is that children’s ideas are inferior, immature, disruptive, and of generally lesser value than adults. While we may not go around saying any of that (it would sound cruel), the stance is made clear by our chronic attachment to models of raising and educating children based on telling them what to do, what to learn, when to do it. Only when they’ve passed into adulthood do their insights become available as tools or agents of change, improvement, adjustment, revitalization.

When Howard Gardner rolled out his theory of multiple intelligences in the early 1980s, a society believing that its youth might possess the capacity to heal an aged and sclerosed society would have rejoiced.  We would have leapt into action in response to the suggestion that our narrow educational focus on the 3Rs was obscuring great swaths of intellectual potential.  Such a society would have seen the urgent need to begin recognizing and supporting the development of a much wider range of capacities.

We weren’t that society, though.  What actually happened in many schools was that Gardner’s theory was acknowledged, but it was used primarily to improve strategies for teaching the same old curricula.  The intelligences (seven in Gardner’s original book: linguistic, musical, spatial, intrapersonal, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, and interpersonal) were treated more as learning styles, not as capacities with their own merit.

This treatment of Gardner’s theory certainly didn’t hurt – it often made learning life better for many children, as lessons were tailored to better suit them.  But we didn’t take the opportunity to shift our stance on human potential.  We didn’t ask ourselves, for example, “this kinesthetic intelligence: what is it? What might it be for? What might it be able to do? What might we be overlooking and missing out on?  Where might it take us beyond where we’ve already been?”

Gardner’s theory arrived in the context of an ideology that didn’t have room for it, so we could do little more with it than use it to support that existing ideology.  It reminds me of Stuart Kauffman’s notion of the “adjacent possible,” summarized here by Steven Johnson:

“The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.  Yet it is not an infinite space, or a totally open playing field.  The number of potential first-order reactions is vast, but it is a finite number, and it excludes most of the forms that now populate the biosphere.  What the adjacent possible tells us is that at any moment the world is capable of extraordinary change, but only certain changes can happen… Think of it as a house that magically expands with each door you open.  You begin in a room with four doors, each leading to a new room that you haven’t visited yet.  Those four rooms are the adjacent possible.  But once you open one of those doors and stroll into that room, three new doors appear, each leading to a brand-new room that you couldn’t have reached from your original starting point.”(Johnson describes the concept with helpful examples and much greater detail, so if you’re interested please see his book Where Good Ideas Come From.)

We weren’t ready for multiple intelligences in 1983, and we may still not be.  As I was typing up the adjacent possible quotation, I thought “am I being pessimistic here?  A downer?”  If we’re not ready, what’s the point of inquiring into this at all?

Well, maybe it’s that instead of monkeying around with our theories, we’d be wise to monkey with the ideologies first.  The way one might be wise, upon noticing that a house was sagging, to have a look at the foundation before trying to shove the walls back in line.

What if we started to ponder the possibility that, as Aries suggested humans once did, children possess thoughts, ideas, outlooks that might have great capacity to solve, reshape, transform?

Aries wrote that these values of youth might “heal an aged and sclerosed society.”  I hadn’t seen the word sclerosed before.  I knew sclerosis, the noun (or rather had heard it and knew it as bad news, medically) but never the verb, so I looked it up. A sclerosis is an abnormal hardening of body tissue.  It’s also an excessive resistance to change.  To be sclerotic is to become rigid and unresponsive; to have lost the ability to adapt.

Sclerosed society indeed.  You’d think we’d be eager, desperate even, to include our young in the quest for solution and transformation, given the war-torn and generally strained condition of society.  But we have, as the dictionary spelled out for me, become rigid and unresponsive; lost our ability to adapt.  We keep doing the same things over and over, resulting in sick lethargic children and struggling adults who turn to numbing activities and substances to get from day to day.

We could really use a new ideology or two.  The one Aries alludes to seems to me like a really good bet.  Just the consideration of it (even if it turns out they don’t possess secret values capable of healing an aged and sclerosed society) might well shift our vision enough to see our young newly, to receive them not as pawns in our outdated survival game but as new information, new potential for contribution.  New light.

Blog housekeeping

A couple of housekeeping items…

You may notice that, effective today, I’ve made Comments visible.  Until now they’ve been invisible thanks to my concern for finding the time to keep up with moderating; I’m committed to keeping the content posted here moving in the direction of a fuller future for every child. There are plenty of other vehicles and outlets for complaint!  I invite you to comment as often as you’re moved to; a shift in paradigm can only come from a shared commitment to something better.

I’ve also started a Facebook page for the blog.  I’m hoping that the Facebook option will make for easier sharing of posts you’d like to pass along. I almost always remember to add new blog posts to the page wall. You can find the page at www.facebook.com/eachonethrives. The blog also posts automatically to Twitter, which I don’t really know how to use, but if it’s your tool of choice, you can see/share posts there too.  It’s eachonethrives over there too.

As always, thanks for reading.


Winter in the Northeast descends – plunging temperatures, snowy travel, holidays.

I realize amidst it all how grateful I am for the readership that has emerged for this blog; you inform and inspire what I write here.  Thank you for watching and listening for the best in your children, for inviting them to grow as they are – brilliant and full, already.

Stay warm, travel safely, eat well, and I’ll see you back here on Monday.

Art à la carte

I’m reading Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind. I’ve been meaning to read it for awhile, and much of it is as I expected.  Pink writes about the relative functions of the right and left sides of the brain and how the two sides will play increasingly complementary roles in human profession and pursuit.  But I didn’t anticipate numbers like these:

“In the United States, the number of graphic designers has increased tenfold in a decade; graphic designers outnumber chemical engineers by four to one.  Since 1970, the United States has 20 percent more people earning a living as writers and 50 percent more earning a living by composing or performing music… More Americans today work in arts, entertainment, and design than work as lawyers, accountants, and auditors.”

 Daniel Pink is quick to assure his readers that we shouldn’t start insisting that everyone become a graphic designer or go to art school. Society won’t function on art alone.  We’ll still use chemical engineers, and lawyers, and, of course, auditors.  He’s saying that the strengths of the right brain are more and more valued in professions that we’ve traditionally considered non-creative.  And that there are more and more jobs in creative professions (as well as more creative professions).

I’m hoping that as it becomes harder to deny that artistic skill is marketable, we’ll stop relegating art to the peripheries of kids’ lives.  I don’t think it’s enough to insist on restored funding so that art (along with other less respected pursuits that have been similarly trimmed) can once again be offered as a side dish to the main courses of traditional academic subject areas.  We’ll also need to start taking kids’ drawing and building and designing as seriously as we take their reading and calculating and spelling and memorizing.