Children are an embodiment of the raw power of creation. They’re also savages.
When I blurt out “Children are savages”, I get the strangest looks. It took me a long time to figure out why, but in the end I realized it’s because I tend to see things in black and white, not the shades of grey that are so popular nowadays. So when I say “Savage” I mean the literal definition, with my normal habit of using the ‘historical or literary context’ definitions of words. Which means my statement of “Children are savages” is simply me pointing out that they are primitive and uncivilized. Maybe it’s a bit overly dramatic, but that’s kind of how I roll in life. Back to the topic at hand though.
Like I said above, children (and most especially infants) are an embodiment of the raw power of creation. As infants they’re adorable little bundles that don’t do much but sleep, eat, and poop. Having seen three children move through this stage, I can say with confidence they’re actually somewhat boring the first few weeks of their lives. Cute, but boring.
Then they get older, and that’s when we have the honor to witness the decades long shaping of the boundless energy they are imbued with at birth. If you’re lucky and give them the space and support they need, you’ll witness them focusing that energy into an utterly amazing drive to gain more knowledge, to better themselves of their own volition, and to dive deep into topics that interest them.
All too often though, I see parents focusing on pushing their children into a mold that society approves of. “Do your homework, so you can get good grades, so you can get into a good college, so you can get a good degree, so you can get married and buy a house.” The part left unsaid at the end of that sentence? “So I don’t have to worry about you.”
After the above clicked in my head, I realized that I was guilty of the same behaviors with my own children. Even though I’ve been a far more liberal parent than most I’ve seen, my own fears were still the biggest things preventing my children from moving forward towards their optimal selves. The only logical conclusion for me was to change the way I parented, which I did.
It’s been absolutely terrifying. I fail to achieve my parenting goals on a daily basis, I’m not sure what I’m doing to the point that I can’t even really explain it to my wife, and I constantly second guess myself. That sounds like a bad thing, but I’ve found it to be the opposite; the more my children see me as a fallible person, and the more I talk about my frustrations, successes, failures, and accomplishments with them, the more self assured they seem to become.
Which brings me to building tall fences around a larger world.
Parents want to keep their children safe, and to do this we create fences around them. Not physical fences most of the time, but rather the idea of fences. “Don’t run!” is followed by “Stay out of the kitchen when the stove is on!”, resulting in the boundaries of the world they’re allowed to explore slowly shrinking.
Children don’t seem to notice it as much as we think they do. When they act out we feel self assured that they’re just pushing a boundary to see how far it stretches, and when they stop we feel good about our parenting skills. Now that I’m trying to look at parenting differently, I am constantly reminded of The Elephant Story:
As a man was passing the elephants, he suddenly stopped, confused by the fact that these huge creatures were being held by only a small rope tied to their front leg. No chains, no cages. It was obvious that the elephants could, at anytime, break away from their bonds but for some reason, they did not.
He saw a trainer nearby and asked why these animals just stood there and made no attempt to get away. “Well,” the trainer said, “when they are very young and much smaller we use the same size rope to tie them and, at that age, it’s enough to hold them. As they grow up, they are conditioned to believe they cannot break away. They believe the rope can still hold them, so they never try to break free.”
The man was amazed. These animals could at any time break free from their bonds but because they believed they couldn’t, they were stuck right where they were.
By putting up an untold number of little fences, you’re essentially turning your child into the elephant. Some will realize they can jump over the fences later in life, but most will just believe that the fences are a hard and unchanging part of their life.
So I propose a compromise:
Don’t shrink your child’s world with little fences. Instead build tall fences around a very large world. Sure, small fences will stop them from skinning their knee (most of the time), burning their hand on the stove (most of the time), and catching a cold (most of the time), but if they don’t get to make the mistake in the first place they’ll never learn to slow down so they don’t trip and fall, that stoves are hot, or that they should keep some distance from humans who look sick.
What do I mean by tall fences? I’m glad you asked. What I mean by that is take the time to identify the things that can really hurt them and stall their growth (think drugs, alcohol, all major political parties, cults, etc.) and close those off from them with glass walls so they can see why it’s not something they should be involved in.
If you can’t help them see why, trust me when I say that they’ll find out for themselves, with possibly traumatic end results but if you can get them to see and understand they why, they’ll likely shy away from it themselves. In my case, helping them see the why has been a somewhat humbling series of tales of my misspent youth, which will (hopefully) result in my children finding new and more interesting ways to fail.
Inside those tall fences though? I think it’s called Free-range Parenting now, but definitions on these things change all the time and I refuse to keep up so it might be called something entirely different now. It’s really quite simple; your job as a parent is to help them not make gigantic life changing mistakes, help them to understand why or why not, and the rest of the time is occupied by simply enjoying their company and catching them when they fall.
I’ve tracked a couple interesting correlations in all of this so far. The first is that the more freedom my children have to make their own mistakes, the less I have to worry about them. They tend to spend more time thinking about the repercussions of their actions when they know they’re likely going to be the one dealing with them. The second though, was really surprising to me.
Children are autodidacts. Support them and they’ll surprise you.
I’ve always suspected humans are autodidacts by nature, but it was more of a vague “Hmmm… I think aliens might be real.” kind of suspicion. I’m leaning more towards my suspicion being true at this point.
Here’s a quick summary of autodidacticism, AKA self-directed learning:
“In self-directed learning (SDL), the individual takes the initiative and the responsibility for what occurs. Individuals select, manage, and assess their own learning activities, which can be pursued at any time, in any place, through any means, at any age. In schools, teachers can work toward SDL a stage at a time. Teaching emphasizes SDL skills, processes, and systems rather than content coverage and tests. For the individual, SDL involves initiating personal challenge activities and developing the personal qualities to pursue them successfully.”
– Maurice Gibbons
What I’ve found so far is that the fewer boundaries my children have, the more they find things that interest them and take it to whatever level they’re comfortable with. Examples abound, but here are a few that have particularly struck me:
- One of my daughters has decided she likes cooking and wants to be a chef, with music as her hobby.
- My other daughter wants to be a lawyer but finds the Spanish language interesting enough to track down Spanish speakers in whatever public place she happens to be in and practice speaking Spanish with them.
- My son, whom I’m homeschooling this year, has developed a surprising interest in US History, but still wants to be an artist.
Did I see at least some of those things coming? Yep, but most definitely not all of them. The secret to them teaching themselves has been to encourage their interest, support it however possible, and, above all else, get out of their way.