“The free exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world.”
“The free exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world.”
Our children are the future. We live in a precarious time in history. We see the man- made and often destructive contributions being made to our humanity at large. We feel a deep unhappiness anytime we put on the news. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, and yet, we place the burdens of the world on the shoulders of children to carry-climate change, greed, war, hate, division and a broken system of education. They want more to look forward to in their future. There will be many who think “that’s not my problem.”
But it is. We are all responsible.
Children should be celebrating the pleasures of their childhood without a care in the world. Instead, we leave them to fix what we’ve broken. We often discount them, due to their age and life experience in the world as inferior to our own. But this simply isn’t true.
I think children feel more and are more attuned to their feelings than we adults. They see the wrongs being inflicted upon them and want to help be the change. Their compassion runs deep.
Neill Strauss once said, “We are taught to focus on success, accomplishment, and accumulating memories and experiences in our lifetime. But what we’re actually building is the thing we focus on the least: our character. That’s what most of us will get to keep the longest. And perhaps what’s more important.”
Our character is our foundation. When walls crumble around us, it’s what’s left in the rubble. I have hope for the future when I see the character of children acting in humble and positive ways for the betterment of their world. Children have been rising up to address issues important to them more and more in recent years. Were at a tipping-point of change. We see their resilience and their strength and we must help them.
I believe in our children’s future. We all have a duty to them. They did not ask for this mighty responsibility but are willing to take the reins in spite of us. I find that to be a true testament to the character of young people today. I am optimistic in feeling to live in a world where young people like Greta Thunberg, a fifteen year old Swedish student, has the strong will to act and see to it that their future doesn’t just fall by the wayside. It’s this strong will to do something that will save us.
We’ve been debating the “effectiveness” of school for a very long time. It seems, we’re divided on the subject. What does it mean to be successful in school? What does well-educated mean? The objective in asking this question is to be direct. Should it be the goal of every student to sacrifice their interests to learning random facts? Should it be the goal of every student to conform and become obedient to authority, without questioning why? Should we be teaching them to be passive and tolerant to tedium for meager rewards? What if a child’s idea of self-education is in saving the world? How can we deny them of their will in the interest to do just that?
When a child is motivated to do something, we need get out of their way and let them. Children want to live with a purpose. When we see young people wanting change, we should listen.
I see a great need in supporting children to follow their calling and do away with the idea that young people can’t possibly change the world. They’re doing it now. I see the future in very good hands.
“The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.”
–Henry David Thoreau
Earlier today I read a post a friend had shared on Facebook about a sixteen year old in Orange County committing suicide last weekend. Notes the child left revealed pressure from school had led them to take their life. Is this child alone in feeling this way? How many more kids go unseen and unnoticed? How many stress and anxiety disorders don’t make the news. How many others don’t even get noticed by parents? As a parent, this rattles me to my core. I can’t imagine the unspeakable anguish the parents must feel right now. A child lost forever.
School today subjects many kids to unreasonable pressure. It sabotages family life. It robs them of creativity and imagination. It robs them of time for personal interests or to simply to be with their own thoughts.
The pressure is becoming worse every year. We’re seduced into thinking that if our kids just work harder, get smarter, improve their GPA, get into a better college and become prosperous that it will all lead to a happy, satisfying life. Scratch away the pretty exterior and you’ll find kids that are exhausted, bored and lost. Perhaps even suicidal.
As I type the words “school makes me feel” into Google the top three suggestions that appear are stupid, empty and sad. One of the top reasons for kids to be brought to a family counselor is anxiety related to school. The symptoms show up in many ways from insomnia, eating disorders, loss of interest, anxiety, depression, physical complaints, fatigue, social isolation and self harm to behavioral problems, anger and destructiveness. It’s often the brightest children who are most sensitive to the wrong that’s being perpetrated on them. They often lack the maturity to understand and articulate their feelings so it shows up in the form of behavior problems.
When did we stop valuing “well being” over grades?
When education is focused on grades and competitiveness, children can’t help but feel enormous distress. Kids who come home with stellar grades and honor roll receive praise. We puff them up to believe that this was the desired result of all their “hard work.” What were really imposing is our own expectation. It’s an enormous burden to carry.
Regardless of any well meaning reassurance from parents or teachers, a child’s self worth is highly impacted by grades. In school, the child becomes less human and is regarded more as a factory product that is subjected to a quality control system of testing and grading. “Grades” may be more appropriate for beef than children. The declining mental health of many children is direct related to school. After all, school tout their number of “college bound” students as a major marker of the quality of their education. There is no measure for the number of physically and emotionally healthy adults that result from their education.
The amount of homework is only one of many systemic problems. Grade school kids come home with nightly homework that approaches 2-3 hours as they get into middle and high school. Even an adult with good paying job would resent coming home to an additional 2 to 3 hours of work at night. It disrupts sleep, family life and mental health.
According to research professor, Dr. Peter Gray, Ph.D “Because of increased uncertainty about future employment, parents worry about their childrens’ abilities to make a living more then they did in times past, and this contributes to their increased tendency to view childhood as a time of resume building. Somehow, parents believe, if they can get their children to achieve high scores on tests, and get them into the most prestigious schools, they can protect their children’s future. They are wrong, of course, but the perception persists. They become convinced by the rhetoric that their children will fail at life if they don’t get high grades and get into a good college. Parents are expected to play the role at home that teachers play at school, pushing and prodding their children to do the things the school system has decided they must do.”
When faced with low scores on academic achievement tests the knee jerk reaction is to argue for more longer hours and more homework. In Japan for example, students perform as well as their Korean peers at math despite a drastically shorter school day. In high-scoring countries like Finland and the Netherlands, the focus is on highly individualized support for students.
So can we stop placing pressure on our kids? For some, like this child that thought the only way to end their pain was to commit the worse kind of infliction, I offer you this…
You mean more than your grades. You are worthy of life. We need you here to do great things. You are a special person that has much to offer the world. There are many who love and care for you. If you are struggling with suicidal feelings, please reach out to someone.
If you’re a child, and unhappy about the demands placed on you in school, do something about it. Demand your family time back. Insist on no homework. Involve other students, be a voice for the masses. There can be no system without you. It cannot exist without you. Educate yourself. Find mentors and people that will support YOUR DREAMS. Commit to something worthwhile. It’s your life.
If you’re a parent that places unnecessary pressure to compete in school, please stop. To see what school is really for, watch the brilliant TedxYouth talk given by Seth Godin here.
“The young person who is alone on the seashore or in the forest and hears music; those people who have the knowledge that the music must be followed- must stay with it. I’m sure that in our world, where emphasis is put on success, the song is heard and forgotten.” Joseph Campbell
Having a good ear is essential to any musician. It’s what separates exceptional musicians from amateurs. Intuition plays a big part, as well as acute awareness to sound, pitch and tone. It’s this same kind of awareness that were tapping into when were following our bliss. Were being sensitive to what moves us, much like the many musicians that felt the call at some point in their life. A spark was ignited, and from that day forward they were hooked.
Our family is a musical one. My husband plays the piano and violin. Both of our children play too-the youngest plays the violin and ukulele, the oldest plays guitar, ukulele and is a classically trained singer. They do it for the love of it- it’s in their DNA. The hours spent practicing scales and repertoire without any acknowledgement or fame doesn’t matter. They are playing, not for the admiration, but for the will inside them to be better for themselves. I’ve witnessed during their practice when time stops, that they’re in a kind of trance like zone, creating their beautiful music. The bliss experienced when studying their craft can’t be put into words.
I use the music analogy because it’s a powerful one. When we think about success we often don’t associate the idea with happiness. In our culture it’s become two separate entities. Something like, you’re only happy until you’ve reached some level of success. Only then when you’ve become what our society deems successful, are you happy. This is where we’ve got it wrong. Instead of pushing and prodding our children to “play it safe”, get good grades, get into college, do something because of the money “success”-we could and should be fostering the idea of following the music in ones heart- the passions and desires that don’t care about the money, that don’t worry about what they might be, that aren’t wrapped up in the trappings societies have placed on us.
I’ve often said that the world needs all kinds of people. We need, more than ever, children brought up to value their own worth, trusting in who they are as individuals, exploring what their life might look like when they “follow their music”.
This is a beautiful quote by David W. Orr,
“The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as we have defined it.”
It’s a shift in consciousness. Everyday we hear the perils of our planet and our humanity. I can imagine a world where people turn inward, and re-evaluate their role in society, their importance on future generations. How we raise our children now will influence tomorrows great leaders and thinkers. The growing dissatisfaction in education for many young people is coming to a crossroads. Many students feel trapped in a school system that does little to support them and their engagement to the work being done is extremely low. It has little relevance to them. They can’t hear the music…
“The worth of education must now be measured against the standards of decency and human survival – the issues now looming so large before us in the twenty-first century. It is not education, but education of a certain kind, that will save us.” -David W. Orr
Some of the most “successful” people I’ve met are those who have given an extraordinary amount of time and effort to creating a world that has harmony, personal freedom, time to do things they enjoy, high integrity, a deep sense of purpose and above all, humility.
So what are we to do?
What dreams and wishes could we all fulfill if we never abandon the music? What if we never betray our deep seated passions and truth? What if we re-evaluated everything we knew and were told and taught about success? Would we be happier? I believe we would. My role as a parent is to be a supporter of dreams, and encourage my children to make their own meaning in life. The change happens only when we re-educate our hearts and minds and make something that matters… more than mere success.
When you look at great, influential people of history, people who’ve made significant contributions to the world in which we now live, we have much to thank them for. I’m currently reading Walter Isaacson’s, Leonardo Da Vinci, An Autobiography. We cannot underestimate or deny his genius- wildly imaginative, passionately curious, visionary, painter, sculptor and architect.
Leonardo was born illegitimate, without privilege or affluence. He never received a formal education. He could barely read Latin or do long division. He did, however, become one of the most inspiring, clever and brilliant human beings to discover, through his curiosity, how to learn. Leonardo took his learning very seriously. He spent much of his youth outdoors, where he marveled at the natural world and explored ideas and concepts that were of interest to him. One thing Leonardo was curious to know more about was the tongue of a woodpecker. He studied this in great detail. There was no reason he needed to know this. It was simply a curiosity.
We might all take a lesson from Da Vinci. His intense observation, wild imagination and experimentation are what fueled him. This is something we can indulge in ourselves and our children.
We should be so bold as to not just take “received knowledge”, but we should be willing to question it, to be imaginative and think differently. One brilliant passage, where Da Vinci’s free thinking attitude challenged the people who ridiculed him for his lack of formal education says,
“I am fully aware that my not being a man of letters may cause certain presumptuous people to think that they may with reason blame me, alleging that I am a man without learning. They strut about puffed up and pompous, decked out and adorned not with their own labors, but by those of others…
They will say that because I have no book learning I cannot properly express what I desire to describe- but they do not know that my subjects require experience rather than the words of others.”
The greatest gift we have is our mind. The innovators of tomorrow start with the curiosity of children today. We must be willing to think outside the box in education.
Our efforts should be in indulging our childrens’ curiosity. We should be inspiring them to to think about what they find worthy, what they want to spend their time exploring and pursuing and let them do that. Let’s give them the time and the space to explore their world like Da Vinci once did.
In the words of Walter Isaacson, we must be relentlessly curious and creative, we must treasure knowledge for its own sake, retain a childlike wonder, observe, see things unseen, go down rabbit holes, get distracted, procrastinate, think visually. Let your reach exceed your grasp. Indulge fantasy. Create for yourself. Collaborate and be open to mystery.
One can choose many paths to take in life. We have the unique ability to flex our power in making choices and decisions. As a young child, we grow and learn naturally. Our curiosity is a fantastic teacher. We may choose one toy over another or we may prefer to bang on the kitchen pots and pans over building mud houses in the sand box.
If we are to raise free thinkers and confident individuals, we must create an environment that provides a healthy model that benefits the child’s well being, personal integrity and autonomy. We see first-hand what happens when a child is given freedom to learn on their own, follow their curiosity and study their interests at their own pace. They build the bridge of their choosing to cross. By doing this they take responsibility for themselves at a much younger age. Being personally invested in the process makes a huge difference! Alfie Kohn, American author and lecturer in the areas of education, parenting, and human behavior said,
“The way a child learns how to make decisions is by making decisions, not by following directions.”
Let’s choose to get out of the child’s way and allow them the space and time to develop their talents and inclinations and encourage them to express who they are as individuals, in an environment that will not stunt their passions and curiosities and spirit.
“Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing. “
“An education is truly “fitted for freedom” only if it is such as to
produce free citizens, citizens who are free not because of wealth or
birth, but because they can call their minds their own. Male and female,
slave-born and freeborn, rich and poor, they have looked into
themselves and developed the ability to separate mere habit and
convention from what they can defend by argument. They have ownership of their own thought and speech, and this imparts to them a dignity that is far beyond the outer dignity of class and rank.”
Neil Gaiman gets talked about a lot in our household. Our kids love Neil for his story Coraline, a story about a brave girl who discovers an alternate world. Her curiosity leads her on many adventures, with many twists and turns. I believe it’s a story crafted by Neil to say to people, get out of your comfort zone, see things, do things, explore. Here are some of Neil’s ideas worthy of some serious thought…
-Approach your creative labor with joy, or else it becomes work.
-Say “no” to projects that take you further from rather than closer to your own creative goals, however flattering or lucrative.
–Embrace your fear of failure. Make peace with the impostor syndrome that comes with success. Don’t be afraid of being wrong.
-Make your art, tell your story, find your voice—even if you begin by copying others.
-You can get work because of the story you tell about yourself, even if it means embellishing, but you keep working because you’re good.
-Enjoy your work and your small victories; don’t get swept up into the next thing before being fully present with the joys of this one.
-This is an era in which the creative landscape is in constant flux. The rules are being broken down, the gatekeepers are being replaced and displaced. Now is the time to make up your own rules.
-When things get tough, make good art
–Sometimes life is hard. Things go wrong- and in life, and in love, and in business, and in friendship, and in health, and in all the other ways in which life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do: Make good art. I’m serious. Husband runs off with a politician? Make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by a mutated boa constrictor? Make good art. IRS on your trail? Make good art. Someone on the internet thinks what you’re doing is stupid, or evil, or it’s all been done before? Make good art.
Go and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here. Make. Good. Art.
We have home-educated our children for the last eight years. Early on, I felt an overwhelming need to measure, test and push to make sure the kids were on the right path. I was teaching them everything I thought they could possibly need to know to “make it” in their life. Was slogging through years of Latin really going to make a big impact on their life? Probably not.
I have attempted to answer the same questions, over and over, year after year for my own children. Whose path is it? What do they want? What is their idea of a life well lived? Every revisit of these questions has brought me a little closer to having a better understanding of what is truly important; for me and for my kids.
Our oldest, just turned sixteen. She has explored her own definition of living a life of purpose and happiness. She continuously asks hard questions of herself, she’s spoken of and written down her wants, her wishes and her dreams- and these continually change, but she understands that her future is up to her. Her own influence and decisions are bringing her closer to the kind of life she imagines for herself.
For so many her age, they feel helpless about their future. We must allow kids to imagine and have experiences that help them to define their own meaning of purpose and happiness and engage in conversations around this idea. One of my favorite quotes, and one that I have up on a board at home is a quote by Hunter S. Thompson.
“Beware of looking for goals: look for a way of life. Decide how you want to live and then see what you can do to make a living within that way of life.”
In our house we do thought experiments based around questions. We talk about these questions in an open way-Sometimes they chose to share their response, other times, its simply for them to explore. Better understanding of oneself leads to and influences motivations and beliefs and shows us that we are the creators of our life. Making it in the ever changing world means that we have to ask intelligent and more thoughtful questions. Now, my worries about the direction my kids take is nil. I don’t think there is such a thing as the “right path”, it’s the path that you make that is worthy.
If you’re curious to know, here are some of the questions we ask:
What does one think is living well?
How do we want to be in the world?
What do we want our world to look like?
Am I worthy of this or is it worthy of me?
What is the difference between living and existing?
Do you find yourself influencing your world, or it influencing you?
What is worse- failing or never trying?
Should one worry what others think of them?
If you had the opportunity to get a message across to a large group of people, what would your message be?
What does happiness mean to you?
What would you do differently if you knew no one would judge you?
What are the top five things you cherish in your life?
How should one handle anxiety?
What is the purpose of money?
What would you say is the one thing you’d like to change in the world?
What makes you smile?
Our family watched this great lecture given by Robert Greene at Oxford University. Robert Greene is a historian of sorts- he’s written several books, a couple which I have are Mastery and the 48 Laws of Power. He gives us a look at three individuals who, through their own self direction went on to accomplish many great things in their lifetime. They were Leonardo DaVinci (developed sophisticated flying machines, detailed navigation equipment, etc), Charles Darwin (discovered the Theory of Evolution) and John Coltrane (one of the finest self taught jazz saxophonists).
The dictionary’s definition of mastery is a “comprehensive knowledge or skill in a subject or accomplishment.” I find this particularly interesting because through self-directed learning, one has substantial time and autonomy to pursue one’s interests in a deep and meaningful way. One is allowed, without permission, to follow their own desires and curiosities.
Philip and I have conversations about self-directed learning- it helps us gain clarity and validates our position that it allows a child to develop their talents, allows them the time to discover things about themselves, gives them the confidence that it is their path, not a pre-packaged path.
Self-directed learning looks very different from traditional schooling- we don’t cover several subjects everyday, we don’t have a set schedule, we don’t test them and we don’t assign a grade. What we do is sit down and talk to them. We ask questions to stimulate conversation. We find out what makes them excited- we tailor their activities to support their interests. Then we engage them in these areas. We support their curiosity. Much of our learning happens simply by talking in conversation. What often ends up happening is the initial conversation will lead to another conversation. It all happens rather organically.
Our youngest daughter Natalie asked us if she could play the violin. She was eight years old. She did a six week beginner class with her teacher and has continued to excel. She has great musical mentors who inspire and push when there is a challenging piece of music, but for the most part, Natalie pushes herself, she thrives on challenge.
From my own experience, when children are allowed to follow their own path of discovery they are on their way to mastery. I see it happening in my own kids. They will continue on their path, and this path may continually change, but it’s their path. I simply have to show them love and enable them a safe place to explore and grow. Ultimately, they will grow into young adults with the confidence that they have made their own choices and decisions about their life.
Mastery in an area is a journey of discovering oneself and self-directed learning is no different. Allowing this natural process only deepens understanding and therefore allows us to follow our own path. I often say, the world takes all kinds of people, and to grow as people we need to be who we are.
I have been reading some interesting books like (this) and (this) to learn more about alternative schooling. Our family has been homeschooling for nearly seven years and have been really happy about our decision. However, more recently, through curiosity, I discovered the Sudbury Valley School model. The idea is to let kids lead their own learning through self direction-without the coercion of adults. I was interested to know more…
At Sudbury Valley School, children arrive at school and have no agenda. There’s no set curriculum, no classrooms with rows and rows of kids being “schooled”. They are free to do anything they want (this is a democratic school, so there are some rules to abide by). If they choose to play outside, they’re free to do so. Play cards with friends, same. Visit the library and read-they can do that too. Here, children decide what they are going to give their time and energy to. Adults are on hand if a student should inquire about further study in a particular subject. Only then does an adult help them understand what it is they want to learn more about.
Daniel Greenberg, Founder of Sudbury Valley, says “It’s the hardest school to be in because they have to ask themselves what they really want to do. Children need to prioritize their time. This allows them to find out who they are.” It’s about discovering the self. Isn’t this what we want for our children? We want them to discover who they are and to follow their passions and dreams until ultimately, they are living a real life that they created; not a life where they have been told/manipulated/coerced to go down some superficial “safe path”- get good grades, get accepted into college, get a high paying career, and spend the rest of your existence living up to others’ expectations or in some un-fullfilling job that you hate. Through unschooling, like the Sudbury Valley model, children learn on their own by making decisions for themselves. Not by adults force feeding them their own ideas of what they think is right for them.
The most interesting point Daniel Greenberg makes is that “When you wanted to learn something, how did you do it? You found something you were curious about, and you immersed yourself in studying it. You had a desire to progress in your learning.” For me, all of the things I have ever become interested in I have done because of a natural curiosity. No one has forced or manipulated me into thinking I “needed” to do something.
I’ve seen this with my own children. They have their own wills, their own internal compass. My girls are so different from each other. I have witnessed through homeschooling my girls, how they get frustrated when it’s time to do a subject they don’t care about. They are not interested. They just “get it over with”. Over the years I began to understand their learning styles. I thought this was important. Truthfully, I thought by knowing this, I would be better able to teach them. I have come to the realization that it’s not my job to “teach” them. They will do it for themselves.
Over the last week we’ve been unschooling, or rather, deschooling. The funny thing is, it’s been rather enlightening to me. The kids are less emotional. Less fussy. There is less tension in our home. The girls laugh together, play together. They have been spending a lot more time outside, riding skateboards, exploring ponds, catching tadpoles, playing Scrabble, learning calligraphy, drawing more, reading more. I see no absence of learning happening. I’m simply allowing them to do what makes them happy. Ultimately, isn’t this, as a parent what we want for our children- to be happy? I think it’s a worthy endeavor for all of us, especially children.