Raising People To Think For Themselves
24 May 2022 | 12:24 pm

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I recognized them as the nice family from our building, their son, who looks to be approaching 4, was straddling one of those wooden, peddle-less "strider" bikes. He was in the midst of a tantrum, stamping his feet, while emitting a whine-cry of frustration. His father was kneeling beside him. As I passed I heard the dad say, in the gentlest, most loving voice imaginable, "If you keep acting like this you won't be able to ride your bike for a whole hour. And that's a long time."


Last summer summer, I was taking a recreational stroll through Pike Place Public Market, the heart and soul of Seattle. A boy, probably around 8, and his mother were having one of those heatless debates:

Boy (excitedly): "I want to go down that side."

Mom (jovially): "Oh, you don't want to go down that side. Let's go down this side. What do you want to see over there anyway?"

Boy (barely audible): "That side."

By then she had taken his hand and it was over.


Just down at the end my street there was a park where I often walk my dogs. During the warmer months, a length of the sidewalk emits fountains of water, arches under which children in bathing suits run on hot days. Every time I'm there, I hear parents saying to timid children, "Go under it!" "Get in it." "Don't be afraid."


These are all just snippets overheard, out of context, and I don't know anything about the lives that lead up to those moments. We all speak with our loved ones unconsciously at times, maybe most of the time, but particularly in moments of stress or when faced with distractions, when our brains are working on things other than the relationship in which we're presently engaged. It's impossible to always be in the moment, of course, especially as a parent, but oh if we could only really hear ourselves speaking from the perspective of a disengaged passerby, how much we'd learn about ourselves and our relationships. So much more, I think, or at least so much different, than what we know about ourselves when we are steadfastly present and aware of our every word.

I think, for many of us, the idea that the adult is "the boss" is such a deeply rooted concept that we act as if it is an unquestioned truth. And sometimes, I suppose, we are "the boss," like when we need to take charge in urgent moments where safety is concerned. Stop! Don't go in the street! But too often we confuse being responsible for someone with being their superior, and that pre-supposition of command crops up in moments when there's really no point, like a bad habit.

It would never occur to us, for instance, to threaten to punish an adult for expressing an emotion like frustration in a non-violent way. In fact, I'd say stamping your feet and crying is a pretty straight-forward way to feel it, release it, then put it behind you. How much better than the adult-approved method of smiling through gritted teeth. When we threaten punishment for expressing an emotion, I think what we are really saying is, I'm embarrassed by the way you're acting. I fear it reflects poorly on me as a parent. That would be an inappropriate, incomprehensible load to lay on a child, so instead we threaten them even if we don't really mean it, like that father was doing with his frustrated son.

As Lao Tzu puts it, "Let your feelings flourish and get on with your life of doing." Kids are often masters of this, if we can just let them go. Seriously, if someone has to be the boss about emotions, I'm all for playing second fiddle. We don't know more about emotions than children simply by virtue of being adults: in fact, I've learned just about everything I know about emotions from working with kids.

And how about the idea that we get to tell children how they feel or what they really want? "You don't want to go down that side," "Oh, you're not hurt," "You don't really want that." Adding the question, "Do you?" to the end of it doesn't help. Believe me, the boy really did want to go down "that side," it does really hurt, and yes, she genuinely wants that. What we are really saying, is "don't want to go down that side, "I wish that didn't hurt," "I don't want to give you that." What children hear is, I don't believe you, and I'm the grown-up, ergo, I know better. The language of command teaches children to distrust their own understanding, even of their own feelings.

I've written before about the knee-jerk use of directional statements: "Sit here," "Put that away," "Go over there." These too, clearly come from the habit of command. So ingrained is this in many of us that we direct, "Go under it!" when what we mean is, "It looks like it would be fun to go under it." We dictate, "Don't be afraid," when what we mean is, "I know you're afraid."

Perhaps as adults we've come to understand the code, to know that when our loved ones say, "Come here!" they aren't really bossing us, but rather just taking a short cut around saying, "I would like you to come over here," although I suspect most of us still feel a flash of resentment each time someone uses the language of command with us. Children, however, only hear that they are being told what to do, how to feel, and even that they might be punished for what is, after all, their own truth.

I have no expectation that any of us will be able to be utterly free of this mind-set. It's a very powerful one, this idea that adults are the boss, a notion that most people will never question, let alone examine. And even those of us who are fully aware, still, in unguarded moments, often fall into the language habits of command, not just with our children, but with our spouses, friends and colleagues. It's a pervasive thing. If we work on it, however, if we're reflective and conscious, our children won't be as likely to develop the habit as they become adults, not to mention that they will spend more of their childhood in a world in which they are free to think for themselves rather than simply reacting, pro or con, to the commands of adults. It's easier said than done, however, which is why I developed a 6-part e-course The Technology of Speaking With Children So They Can Think, which is an extended opportunity to really question and examine the impact of the language we use with the children in our lives and what we can do instead.

We know that what we learn when we're young carries forward into adulthood, and I for one would prefer to live in a world of people who think for themselves.


The language we use creates reality. In this limited registration course we will explore how the way we speak with children creates an environment in which cooperation and peacefulness are the norm, where children take the initiative, solve their own problems, and, most importantly, think for themselves. Registration for this 6-week course ends at midnight tonight! Click here for more information and to register.

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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None Of Us Wants To Be Told What To Do
23 May 2022 | 12:21 pm

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My wife and I have had four dogs over the course of our three and a half decades together. Whenever I have made the mistake of pulling on any of their leashes, they have all pulled in the opposite direction, every time. Believe me, left to their own devices, they always want to go where ever I go. I know this because when there is no leash involved they follow right on my heels, hot breath on the backs of my legs, tripping me up when I turn around unexpectedly, but if they sense I'm compelling them, their instinctive response is to rebel.

I've found this to be true in humans as well. No one likes to be told what to do, even when we know it's for our own good, even when it's something we want to do. Imagine being commanded, "Eat your dessert!" I might still eat that dessert, but there will be a moment of reluctance, of rebellion, even if it's chocolate ice cream. When I do eat it, it's not going to taste as good after being bossed into it. And depending on who says it and how they say it, there's about an equal chance I won't eat that damn ice cream at all.

Rebellion is built into us, and ultimately it is an adaptive trait. We all pull back against the leash because we are designed to act according to the pull of our own instincts and the tug of our own knowledge. Of course, we've all found ourselves in circumstances when we've decided that we must stuff our rebellious urges, but we always grow to despise those dictatorial bosses, teachers, or spouses. If we do well it's usually "in spite" of them. And, of course, we wriggle out of those particular leashes as soon as we possibly can.

We set limits and rules and our children always test them. Even the most patient and progressive among us know, from the inside, that teeth grinding spiral of commands and refusals, until we finally resort to either physical force or the heavy hand of punishment. It leaves everyone feeling angry, resentful, and abused. And if we're not careful, if we're not conscious adults, these smaller spirals become part of a larger whirlpool of ever escalating rule breaking and punishments because every pull on the leash, every punishment, leads to a pull in the opposite direction.

Some of us have decided that this rebellion is a bad thing, at least when it's directed at us, and it must be quashed at all costs. We're the parents or teachers after all. We will not have our authority challenged. If that's your approach, your future will likely be either one of temporary, savorless victories followed by frustration, or a regime that involves punishments of increasingly extreme severity. Every study ever done on the subject of punishment (both parental and societal) winds up concluding that punishments only work under two circumstances:

  1. when the punisher is present; or
  2. when the punishment is debilitating (e.g., so disproportionately severe that one will never again risk it.)

Most of us are unwilling or unable to play the role of ever-present punisher. And I hope that none of us are the type to inflict debilitating punishments on a child.

And rewards, frankly, are just the flip side of the same coin, but instead of teaching children that those with power get to tell them what to do, a fundamentally anti-democratic notion, they learn to kiss up to those in power. Either way, the child is left to react, rather than think for themselves, which should be, in the end, one of the primary objectives of child-rearing.

The alternative is to accept rebellion as a demonstration that our child is healthy and normal, that it is not a sign that they are on their way to a life of crime and ruin, but rather evidence that they think for themself, trust their own instincts, and will not be pushed around. When we accept this, we see that our job is to guide rather than command our children, to help them come to the understanding that behavior has its own rewards and consequences. I've written before about "natural consequences" and they apply here.

A parent taking away a boy's dessert because he hits his sister isn't the natural consequence of hitting. The consequence is that his sister is hurt and the evidence of that is the crying. That's where our attention ought to be. "You've hurt your sister," keeps the focus on the boy's behavior, allowing everyone to explore the consequence and potential remedies. "No dessert for you," turns the boy's attention on the "unfairness" of the parent who is pulling on that damn leash.

Rebelliousness is not a synonym for "anti-social" or "uncivil," it's merely a reaction to the leash. We all want to do the right thing and none of us wants to be told what to do.


If you're interested in learning more about alternatives to commands, punishments, and rewards, please consider registering for my 6-week course The Technology of Speaking With Children So They Can Think. You have until close of business Tuesday to be part of this cohort as we examine how the language we use with children creates reality. In this limited registration course we will explore how the way we speak with children creates an environment in which cooperation and peacefulness are the norm, where children take the initiative, solve their own problems, and, most importantly, think for themselves. Click here for more information and to register.

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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When We Speak With Children As People
20 May 2022 | 12:39 pm

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People often ask me if there is a particular curriculum to which I ascribe. More often than not, when I answer that it is up to the children, I can tell they are frustrated. They think I'm being rhetorical. Certainly, there must be some sort of pre-determined course of study. After all, that's how school worked for most of us. It's what school is.

Of course, maybe I ought not call what I do "school" at all. Maybe I ought not call myself a "teacher." I mean, those terms take people down the wrong path. I could instead call it "a place for children" and label myself "facilitator," but if they already think I'm being opaque, that won't clear things up. 

I most often use the term "play-based curriculum," which at least speaks to people who already know a little something about our field, but I've found that for most folks, that's a lot like saying, "We're a crunchy granola hippy school." They smile -- sometimes warmly, sometimes dismissively -- then move on to another topic. "Self-directed" learning is another descriptive phrase I try out at times, but again, it requires a great deal of explanation.

In other words, there are no short-cuts to explaining what we do to the uninitiated, which is most people.

I think that's because no matter what we say about curriculum or education or learning or school, we are speaking with people who don't see children the way we do. Most of the world views children as perhaps cute and necessary, but otherwise small, incompetent, untamed, undisciplined, and ignorant. They might love children to death, but even the best of us tend to feel that without constant adult guidance and instruction, they will grow up to be entitled brats incapable of fitting into society.

When talking about what we do, it seems to me that this is really the place to start -- with the children themselves, not the "curriculum." Because if more people understood children the way we do, as competent, self-directed, curious and eager to satisfy that curiosity, that they are wired to learn about the world around them, how it works, and how they fit into it, then what we do with them as play-based educators would be so self-evident that it would require no explanation.

As humans, the way we regard one another shows up in the way we speak with them. When we listen to adults engaging with children, we most often hear the language of command, of disbelief, and of doubt, all of which tells us that the adult perceives themself, no matter how kindly their tone, as being superior to the child. When we hear adults scold, cajole, and constantly question, we see adults that see children as needing to be kept on a particular course, one that is best determined by that adult. 

If there is one thing that stands at the center of my approach to children it is this: the way we speak with children creates reality. And the reality most adults create is one that requires "school" and "teaching" and adult-mandated curricula. The problem is that even for those of us who truly view children as fully-formed, competent human beings, we continue to create that more dystopian reality through the way we speak with children.

In my e-course, The Technology of Speaking With Children So They Can Think, we take a deep-dive into the language we use with children and how even small changes can result in major changes in how children engage with their world, other children, and the adults in their lives. It is an approach, through language, that respects children, freeing them to satisfy their curiosity, which is the instinct to learn made manifest. It frees children think for themselves, which is ultimately what we want for all children.

When we speak with children as people, as trusted colleagues, rather than mere children, we open a door of epiphany. As I wrote on Wednesday, it will look to the uninitiated like magic, but it is really the application of knowledge for practical purposes, which is the definition of technology. 

Until the revolution comes, we may always find it difficult to explain what it is we do, but we, through the language we use, have the power of shaping a freer, and better reality for the children in our lives. And that is everything for those children.


The language we use creates reality. In this limited registration course we will explore how the way we speak with children creates an environment in which cooperation and peacefulness are the norm, where children take the initiative, solve their own problems, and, most importantly, think for themselves. Click here for more information and to register.

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
Bookmark and Share

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