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What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?
A while ago, I saw this photo from the Humans of New York series, captioned with a response from the girl in the photo to the photographer’s question. I love that instead of answering the question, she challenged it instead.
“I don’t like that question. Everybody always asks me what I want to do when I grow up, but nobody can tell me what they want to do. Anyway, even if I tell you I want to do something, I’m probably not going to want to do it anymore once I try it. Did you want to be a photographer when you were my age? Didn’t think so.”
A common fallback question adults use to engage kids they don’t know well—after the ubiquitous “what grade are you in?” and “what subjects do you like in school?l”—is “what do you want to be when you grow up?”
The question shows a lack of interest in the life the child is living right now. Many adults don’t know how to engage with children as equal human beings. I suspect that most of us subconsciously remove ourselves as quickly and as far as possible from memories of what it really felt like to be a child. It was then that we were powerless to make decisions about our lives, and our ideas and opinions were only just tolerated or dismissed entirely by the adult power structure.
If our culture and we as products of that culture didn’t devalue kids, we might be better able to connect with our own childhoods more deeply and feel greater kinship with the children we encounter, rather than objectifying them as proto-humans and adults in training.
It would be valuable for all of us to recognize our adult bias. The next time you talk to a child of any age, challenge yourself to wonder who s/he is right now and what s/he finds engaging. What experiences bring happiness, sadness, or anger? What does s/he feel proud of? What is important right now? How does today feel?
These are questions not to ask the child, but to help you observe and listen from a state of genuine curiosity about this person in front of you. Children respond and appreciate genuine interest in who they are now. Whereas, those same kids will mumble and extricate themselves as quickly as possible from interactions with adults who approach them with some kind of internal fantasy about who they must be just because they’re kids.
It continues to delight me how kids I don’t know will respond fully and with eye contact when they realize I’m talking to them as a person, rather than as a generic kid. It’s really fun with babies who choose to stare and stare at me, constructing knowledge I can’t fathom, and all the time I know that I am actively connecting with another human being.
The thing is, we continue to be ourselves from the moment we’re born. We do not magically change into an alternate state of being called an “adult”. Although I’ve had lots of life experiences and have gained knowledge and wisdom from many years of living, I have the same feelings and many of the same internal struggles I had when I was a kid. My friend Pearl, who posted a wonderful piece on her blog, “Feeling Grown Up”, articulates this internal experience so well.
The odd thing isn’t that I don’t feel grown up, or that the old people I know — ahem, oldER people — don’t. The odd thing is that we expect some feeling to come in and replace how we have always felt since we were born.
When I am the only responsible grown-up on site, when I have to deal with an intimidating bureaucracy or a family member’s health crisis or mailing in correctly filled out documents, I don’t feel any more grown up than on my first day of school every year or when I ask for help at an information desk.
It would be valuable for us to remember that children feel the same emotions as adults. Each struggles with their particular insecurities and relishes the joyous experiences of their lives. We are all human and we all want to be seen and valued for the people we are, not as some future idealized effective adult–whatever that means.
I’ll leave you with two more quotes from a couple of writers.
Because never in my entire childhood did I feel like a child. I felt like a person all along–the same person that I am today. I never felt that I spoke childishly. I never felt that my emotions and desires were somehow less real than adult emotions and desires. And in writing Ender’s Game, I forced the audience to experience the lives of these children from that perspective–the perspective in which their feelings and decisions are just as real and important as any adult’s. –Orson Scott Card, from his forward to Ender’s Game
We do not grow absolutely, chronologically. We grow sometimes in one dimension, and not in another; unevenly. We grow partially. We are relative. We are mature in one realm, childish* in another. The past, present, and future mingle and pull us backward, forward, or fix us in the present. We are made up of layers, cells, constellations. –Anais Nin
* Except for her regrettable use of this word that I riffed on in another post, I love Nin’s perspective in this quote.
First Documentary Interview
Next week, I will conduct my first interview on camera, which may or may not have material that ends up in the documentary. I will be talking to a graduate of The Clearwater School, trying out questions and ideas, finding out which ones generate more questions and ideas and which ones don’t. Although I feel some trepidation, I also feel excited to begin the filmmaking part of this project.
Three Stories: The Third
[Read the first and the second stories.]
During the fifth year of The Clearwater School, we attracted several new students, including some 5-7 year old boys. An interaction with one of those boys forever changed my response to children’s powerful, dark emotions. What I learned from that experience–and many more opportunities to practice–has enabled me to be more present with anyone who is in the throes of dark emotions.
(By way of definition, when I use the term “dark emotions,” I mean emotions such as anger, rage, fear, grief, despair, and shame.)
One of the new young boys, whom I’ll call Brad, was six years old and what some people would call a difficult child. He desperately wanted to play with the other little boys and was full of a manic kind of joy whenever they included him. The trouble was that Brad was aggressive in his attempts to engage other children in play. He hadn’t yet figured out essential social cues that make it easier to enter in to a group, or the nuances of cooperation that make play fun and satisfying. There were lots of difficult things in Brad’s life outside of school that made it mostly impossible for him to pay attention to anyone other than himself.
Like a bull in a china shop, Brad repeatedly crashed ongoing games, only to be adamantly rebuffed. Occasionally, the other boys reluctantly included him, but he usually undermined himself by trying to take over and direct everyone. Disgusted and angry, the other boys stopped playing with him.
Brad’s feelings of rejection after these experiences triggered his rage. He lashed out at the people he wanted as friends, they rejected his overtures, and the heartbreaking cycle repeated over and over. His rage frequently became physical: he threw things, shoved, kicked and hit people. We staff members told him to stop and had to physically restrain him to keep him from hurting people.
One of the core tenets of The Clearwater School is that students and staff members are equally responsible for ensuring that everyone is safe and treated with respect. Although adult staff are ultimately responsible for everyone’s safety, they share power equally with students and do not take on an authoritarian role. It was deeply unsettling and uncomfortable to have to restrain Brad, because using physical power is contrary to protecting students’ personal freedom and self-determination. It was soon obvious that Brad would either have to quickly learn to control his anger or he could not be at our school.
One day, Brad came to school angry and even less capable than usual of considerate interactions with the other boys. Almost immediately, something triggered him and he became enraged at his friends. He began throwing things at them and at the windows with alarming force. I shouted at him to stop and when he didn’t, I grabbed his arms. Of course, the restraint just added fuel to his blazing anger. He struggled and tried to hurt me.
I told Brad he had to stop hurting people and damaging the building. If he didn’t, I would call his mom to pick him up and take him home as soon as possible. He tore out of my grasp, grabbed a stuffed animal toy he’d brought to school that day, and viciously wrenched and tore at it.
His rage was deep and powerful. I was scared of it and him. He and his dangerous emotions were terrifyingly out of control. I wanted to destroy his anger. I was the adult and it felt like my job to control him. The problem was that his emotional storm had crashed over me. I felt out of control and helpless to know what to do.
He continued to thrash and I tried to restrain him, but he broke away from me, threw the stuffed toy on the floor, ran outside, and climbed the jungle gym. I was relieved that his dangerous energy was now outdoors and he wasn’t immediately trying to hurt anybody.
I kept an eye on him as my mind worked furiously to try to figure out how to gain control. In the midst of my fear and desperation, I was also curious about the new stuffed animal he had savaged. Something about his treatment of the toy made me think it represented something or someone that was the real source of his anger that day. I picked it up, went outside and stood near the jungle gym.
Brad eyed me with a sullen, resentful look. I asked him about the stuffed toy–where he got it, why he brought it. He said he hated the toy and wanted to destroy it. The pain at the root of his anger was suddenly palpable.
I wasn’t scared anymore. My desire to control him evaporated. With a little more probing I found out that his mom’s boyfriend had recently given him the toy in an attempt to make up for breaking a promise to take Brad on a highly-anticipated outing. It sounded like it wasn’t the first time. Brad was understandably hurt and furious.
Without judgment I said, “When you attacked the stuffed animal, I bet you imagined it was your mom’s boyfriend.” Brad’s energy abruptly shifted. The sullenness was gone and he looked at me as if seeing me for the first time–a human being like him. No longer was I yet another adult he had to obey or please. In that moment, I was someone who understood and accepted him.
After that, our relationship shifted. I felt ecstatic and overwhelmed by the power of that connection, and I was committed to maintaining it. Brad decided to trust me and reveal his vulnerable, big heart. Every day after that, he gave me at least one big hug. He felt safe.
It was not all wine and roses. For a while, Brad continued to take his anger out on other people. The school community generously gave him lots of chances and supported him by setting clear boundaries around his out-of-control behavior. Incrementally, he figured out ways to contain and channel his rage. He spent days, months and years learning how to care for and give to his friends, even when it meant he didn’t always get what he wanted.
Today, Brad is a sensitive, empathic young man who is emotionally available to his friends and family. As for me, I learned that children’s emotions are no less powerful and important than those of adults. Exerting adult power and control over children and their emotions is a type of violence, because it trivializes and dishonors them. Children respond to attempts to control them by putting up defensive emotional barriers to protect themselves, but the effort of maintaining those walls means they can’t put much energy into personal growth and development. By recognizing the humanness of Brad’s pain and anger, I re-established space for him to work with his emotions, and accept support from me and others in the community to continue learning and growing.
Three Stories: The Second
My friend, Pearl, who has her own wonderful blog, linked to an interview with playwright Sarah Ruhl at The Interval. Because of its relevance to the theme of this blog and my documentary project, this statement of Sarah’s caught my eye:
It’s a privilege to have kids and not live your life in solitude. But we live in a child-hating culture. No one likes kids. We say we do and we take pictures of pregnant women for People Magazine, but really they’re commodities—we hate them around, we hate them on airplanes, we consider them a grand imposition and almost a style choice. So no wonder women artists are offended about having to talk about them because they’re not considered important [by society]. So, for me, I think it’s about pushing them to the center for both men and women instead of pretending that my mind is an ivory tower that’s above something so mundane as the influence of children. They’re not mundane.
Having recently seen a moving production of Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice by the TCS Acting Society at The Clearwater School, I wanted to know more about her philosophy and borrowed her book of very short essays from my local library. Titled 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write on Umbrellas and Sword Fights, Parades and Dogs, Fire Alarms, Children, and Theater, the essays about storytelling, theater, audiences and children are honest, thoughtful and lovely to read. I highly recommend the book to anyone interested in any of these topics.
In an essay titled, “What do you want what do you want what do you want”, Sarah tells a story of taking her three-year-old twins to the shoe store to buy new shoes. She notes that they probably didn’t have enough breakfast, but she rushed them out the door anyway. As they left the shoe store, both children started crying, her daughter threw her new shoes in the street, and then so did her son.
Sarah asked them what was wrong and wheeled them into a nearby convenience store to get them some food. She asked them if they wanted cheese, chocolate milk, or other foods. They continued to cry, throw things out of the stroller, kick and say “No, no no!” Sarah said more emphatically, “What do you want?” Her son screamed that he wanted M&Ms, and continued screaming it when Sarah didn’t want to buy them. She relented and asked if he would promise to “shut his face” if she got him the M&M’s, a phrase she felt ashamed of saying afterward. He said he would, she bought the candy, and he calmed down.
Her daughter, however, continued to scream, exhausting what little reserve of patience and understanding Sarah still had. Sarah said, “What do you want? What do you want? What do you want? What do you want?” Her daughter then said quietly, “I don’t like you.” Sarah stopped and really listened, finally understanding that her daughter was angry and sad that Sarah had yelled at her and her brother. Sarah’s impatience to get out the door and get through the shopping trip had interrupted her emotional connection with her children. They missed it and loudly expressed the loss.
Sarah apologized and agreed to be her regular self and her daughter stopped crying. When they got home, Sarah’s daughter asked her to play and they played the little girl’s newly invented game in which they took turns, over and over, pretending to be a closed gate that opened when the other turned a plastic key over the gate person’s heart, letting the key holder walked through.
Sarah wrote at the end of the essay:
I had underestimated the heart of my little daughter when she was crying. I thought she wanted chocolate milk. She wanted something more, something that didn’t cost anything.
She wanted to open my heart; she wanted to walk in.
Three Stories: The First
In last week’s post, I advocated for refusing to use the word “childish” as a label for irritating and troublesome behaviors, because it defames children as a class. Adults are not paragons of rationality and are just as likely as kids to be overwhelmed by their emotions. It takes humility, courage and awareness to support rather than control someone who is upset.
Most adults have experienced times when a child’s emotions trigger their own pain or anger. Children in the throes of powerful and painful emotions feel out of control and scared. Feeling out of control is excruciating, and often adults try to re-establish equilibrium by trying to control the child. Ironically, this only compounds everyone’s feelings of helplessness and fear.
This week, I tell the first of three stories to provide some insight into this dynamic.
When my son was around three years old, he was passionate about dinosaurs. He had a small collection of those heavy, nicely painted toy dinosaurs. He and I liked to make occasional outings to the toy section of a big downtown department store, where he loved looking at and playing with the store’s large inventory of plastic prehistoric beasts.
On one such trip, I told him that he could choose one dinosaur and I would buy it for him. After considering all the options, there were two he really wanted. I was unwilling to buy both and told him he had to choose between them. He found the choice impossible and became more and more miserable. In spite of his agony over having to choose, I stuck to my guns and refused to buy both. The situation turned into a slow-motion train wreck. Perhaps he was tired; I’m sure I was. Perhaps he needed food; his equanimity declined precipitously whenever his blood sugar was low. In any case, our fun outing turned into an agonizing power struggle.
Initially, I tried sympathizing. I talked rationally (in what was probably a patronizing tone) about how hard it can be to decide. I tried reasoning with him and suggested ways to help him figure out which dinosaur he might want more. The minutes crawled by and the standoff continued, both of us in our private purgatories with toy dinosaurs as the scenic backdrop.
My son was in tears and intransigent, a picture of abject misery. Equally intransigent and miserable, I was a mess inside and got progressively messier outside. Reacting with frustration and anger at Ian’s inability to decide–and desperate to wrest control of the situation–I finally said, with cold iron in my voice, that I would not buy either one if he didn’t decide in five minutes. Or was it ten? Some ridiculous number that only lengthened an already unbearably long predicament. He couldn’t decide; I wouldn’t buy two. I roughly picked him up and left the store, feeling embarrassed and impotent.
How did my generous impulse to give something to my little boy that he loved become such a horrible quagmire? I thought I needed to set a boundary: choose one or we leave. The problem was that my boundary arose out of an unclear place of pain and frustration and was really just a hammer. I took away something I had offered. Who doesn’t hate that?
I was completely out of my depth. The uncertainty was so painful and frightening that I completely forgot to love. What I really needed to do was re-establish my connection with my son. Instead, I tried to control him, which only left me feeling angry, ill-used, helpless, guilty. For years my thoughts would return to that day, but a solution, or simply a better way, continued to elude me.
What else could I have done? Looking back, I wonder what would have happened if I had gently picked him up and said that we both needed a break, that we would come back in a little while. We could have gotten something to eat or gone to play in a nearby park. I bet that would have calmed both of us, creating time and space for us to re-establish our connection. Perhaps then we could have talked about what was so hard. I didn’t have a clue what meaning he made from the experience of having to choose. I wish I had. Perhaps we would have discovered a happy dinosaur solution. Perhaps he would have chosen home instead of dinosaurs.
I tortured myself with feelings of failure and guilt, but there was no profit in the punishment. It is necessary for adults to apologize to children when we make mistakes–and also to forgive ourselves. If we resolve to respond from a place of connection and empathy, rather than control, children will feel cherished and empowered–especially when we mess up.
Heaping Scorn with a Single Word
Superstition is foolish, childish, primitive and irrational – but how much does it cost you to knock on wood? [emphasis mine] —Judith Viorst
“You’re being childish.” “Don’t be so childish.”
Many, if not most, of us have been called childish or called someone childish with little thought about the word itself. If you’ve been on the receiving end, it feels like a put down, an insult, a criticism.
I count religion but a childish toy, and hold there is no sin but ignorance. [emphasis mine] —Christopher Marlowe
Childish – puerile, weak, silly, foolish or petty
The ending -ish often has unfavorable connotations; childish therefore refers to characteristics that are undesirable and unpleasant: childish selfishness, outbursts of temper. Infantile, originally a general word, now often carries an even stronger idea of disapproval or scorn than does childish. Meaning “puerile, immature, like a child” in a bad sense is from early 15th century. Dictionary.com
The word “childish” scapegoats children as the embodiments of irresponsible, aggressive and irrational behavior.
In truth, humans of all ages behave irresponsibly and irrationally. Rather than slander and punish children with such a scornful word, we all need to be more honest and acknowledge our human foibles.
Behaviors that we label “childish” may be more obvious in children because our culture condemns those behaviors in adults and works to shut them down in children as early as possible. In many places and situations, we label playful, boisterous people as unruly, loud, and disorderly.
Children often express the “negative” emotions of anger, frustration, sadness more overtly than adults. The intensity of children’s dark emotions seems over the top and elicits embarrassment, anger, fear and even amusement from us adults.
Sometimes, I notice myself smiling when I see a small child yelling or crying in rage when another child takes her toy. My smile contains empathy, but it also contains a kernel of superiority, a belief that I am somehow better because I am above that kind of over-the-top reaction to something so small.
I don’t usually express my anger or frustration loudly or openly, but I know without a shadow of a doubt that I am not above intense anger over small things. Only years of effective socialization keep me from yelling and throwing things. (Of course, there are plenty of adults who feel no compunction about yelling or throwing things when they’re angry, despite social disapproval [see “childish”].)
What kinds of small things make my blood boil? Drivers who consistently drive at least 10 mph slower than the posted speed–especially when I’m in a hurry, or people in a grocery store who block the aisle with their carts. I’ve seen drivers become so angry about a slow driver that they dangerously speed around and cut in front. I’ve seen little signs in people’s yards telling passersby with barely concealed rage to keep their dogs from pooping in the yard. And we all know it’s never advisable to read the comments sections of internet sites, because apoplectic people rage unchecked there.
My point is that children are no more likely to respond irrationally than adults are. Plus, it’s insulting and patronizing to belittle someone else’s emotional reaction and call it childish. Why is it anymore unreasonable or irrational for a child to rage about someone taking her toy than for a me to fume about the slow driver who makes me arrive three minutes later? My ability to behave reasonably and patiently is just as compromised as a child’s when I’m tired or there’s too much going on.
The traits the word ‘childish’ addresses are seen so often in adults that we should abolish this age-discriminatory word when it comes to criticizing behavior associated with irresponsibility and irrational thinking. —Adora Svitak *
Rather than slander children for everyone’s intense emotional reactions, it is more helpful and humane to remember that there’s a vulnerable, hurt person underneath. Striking back with a word like “childish” serves only to shame and stimulates more anger and defensiveness. We can begin to disentangle ourselves from the cultural war on children by eliminating the word “childish” from our vocabularies and encouraging other people to do the same. And, we can actively provide compassionate space and support for children–and ourselves–as we all keep learning to navigate our complex emotional landscapes.
*Adora Svitak is a person I want to connect with. If anyone knows her or has some connection to her, please let me know. If not, I can contact her via her website.
More Thoughts on Performing Monkeys
My post, Performing Monkeys, generated several comments that stimulated more of my own thoughts about the topic of children as entertainment. I described the adult reactions in that video of Sydney testifying before her school board as “amused condescension”.
Erik Haugsjaa, a Sudbury Valley School parent and blogger, posted a link to my post on his blog, and wrote, “It’s hard to resist amused condescension, but it’s the right thing to do. It’s powerful to treat kids as equals.” In an email exchange with me, he also observed that because kids are cute, there is probably a biological impulse for adults to want to take care of the little ones.
I agree with him that adults are often delighted and indulgent with little kids, even ones that are not related to them–even the little ones of different species as the thousands of cute animal videos on youtube demonstrate. (The desire to care for the small and cute is not limited to humans. On the internet, you can find several examples of mammals and birds caring for the young of other species.) Adults also tend to give little kids more slack and time for play and discovery, than they allow older kids and adults.
My concession to re-posting cute animal photos
A friend commented that he felt annoyed watching the video of Sydney’s speech, because he figured the adults were not even listening closely to her speech, knowing they didn’t have to pay attention to one of the “powerless”. Although adult affection and delight was clearly in the mix of reactions, I believe what my friend noticed was also there.
Adult affection and care for children is a wonderful, necessary thing. What too often happens is that we get stuck at children’s cuteness and the spectacle of them doing something for the first time. Maybe because many of us weren’t taken seriously when we were children, we have not developed the skills to attend to the serious business that children engage in as they figure out something new, navigate their own and others’ complex emotions, make sense of the surrounding culture, and work to develop meaningful relationships with other children and adults.
It takes conscious effort to see the cute kid in front of us and also observe with curiosity, listen deeply and interact with her or him as a human being rather than as an entertaining (or annoying) object. Children can feel the difference in the quality of attention. They want to engage as equal human beings by sharing their thoughts, their passions, their accomplishments, their wit, their observations. Many respond with enthusiasm because so few adults are really interested in them as whole people.
It is a rewarding experience to really interact with a child and feel the fullness of that person responding. Words are not necessary. A smile and a gaze that communicates, “I see you and am curious about the person you are,” is something every one of us needs and deserves, whatever our age.
Who Will Protect the Children?
In the U.S., we use ratings systems, print and broadcast warnings to inform parents and guardians about materials that various authorities deem too offensive, disturbing, violent, scary or adult for young children to listen to, read, watch, or play.
When I was a staff member at The Clearwater School, especially in the early years, there were several school meeting discussions about whether PG-13 and R-rated movies, and M-rated video games should be allowed at school. (Clearwater’s philosophy is that students are responsible for choosing their pursuits and how they spend their time, as long as their activities are safe and do not infringe on someone else’s freedom.)
Parents were initially the ones who raised questions about exposure to mature-rated media. Their concern focused on whether students knew the difference between fantasy and reality (they did), whether violent content would normalize violent behavior (it didn’t), and–because the school enrolls people from ages 4 to 19–how young children would be protected from inadvertent exposure to content that was too scary or disturbing for them. Students were adamant that being able to play the games they wanted to play and watch the movies they wanted to watch was a matter of free speech and free thought. Since they were responsible for their lives and education, they believed they should be the ones to decide what was okay to watch or play.
The issue of appropriate content was raised by older students, too. On one occasion, a group of 12- to 15-year olds, mostly boys, watched a series of horror movies over a period of a couple of weeks. A handful of young children (4- to 6-year-olds) knew the boys were watching scary movies. The little kids wanted to test their courage and satisfy their curiosity by exposing themselves to bits of the movies. (I suspect they also enjoyed bugging the older kids in the movie room for the attention.)
The younger students would frequently open the door during the movie, and peek or dash in for the thrill of seeing something scary, however briefly. The older students found the interruptions extremely annoying and some were also concerned about the little kids seeing something that was too scary for them. Several times they asked the little ones to stop, to no avail.
The teenagers brought the issue up at a weekly school meeting and proposed that kids under 11 or 12 not be allowed to watch scary movies that were either PG-13 or R. The debate was eye-opening. Students who were between 10 and 12 years old spoke convincingly about the injustice of someone else telling them they were too young to watch movies they might want to see. They, in turn, proposed a minimum age of 7-9 years old. The little movie interrupters vigorously objected to anyone proscribing their movie watching.
A 6-year-old, who was guilty of disturbing the peace of the movie watchers, spoke up and said that she certainly knew when something was too scary for her and no one should be able to prevent her from watching movies because of her age. She went on to say that it was probably a good idea to protect 3- and 4-year-olds from watching scary movies at school. (There were no 3- or 4-year-olds enrolled at Clearwater at the time.)
The debate was lively and thoughtful; each point of view was considered and taken seriously. In the end, everyone agreed that limiting scary movies by age didn’t make sense. There was, however, a decision that the young students’ frequent, distracting interruptions infringed on people’s freedom to watch movies in peace.The little offenders agreed to either stay in the room and watch or leave the viewers alone.
What was interesting to me was that students sought to protect those who were younger, yet everyone was adamant that no one other than themselves should be able to limit their exposure to materials they wanted to engage with. And students did limit themselves. There were plenty of kids of varying ages who were not interested in watching scary movies, or absorbing any other content they were not ready for. Like the movie watchers, they knew themselves and what kinds of exposure they wanted.
One of the important things I learned from that discussion was that children, even quite young children, have the capacity to make smart, rational decisions, and that part of respecting children is to pay attention to what they know about themselves and what they want to experience. It is easy to presume that we have a window into a child’s inner life, based on their age, their personality and what we see on the outside.
It is vital to children’s lifelong well being and self-determination that adults understand that, like an iceberg, the depth and breadth of a person’s inner life is so much greater than the glimpses we get on the surface. Although we try to shield children from experiences we find harsh or troubling, they actively seek ways to explore those things safely, most of the time. That exploration is what helps them develop knowledge, resilience and strategies for coping with the vicissitudes of life.
What Do You Expect?
In January, I heard a fascinating radio show on how our expectations affect people around us in concrete and long-term ways. The show was the premiere episode of the terrific Invisibilia podcast, and was broadcast on This American Life.
The main story was about Daniel Kish, completely blind since he was a toddler, who literally sees the world around him by echo-locating, a skill he developed independently. He hikes, rides a bike and moves through the world with fluidity and confidence in large part because his mom refused to let her and others’ fears and worries restrict his exploration and learning.
In the podcast, interviewer Alix Spiegel explained that Daniel believes more blind people don’t move through the world so easily because our “expectations, those private thoughts in our heads” about what blind people can do “are too low” and “are extremely powerful things” that “have the ability to change the blind person we are thinking about.” Daniel said, “That psychology becomes inculcated in the blind person, absorbed, and translated into physical reality.”
Daniel’s mom, Paulette, had to make a choice between whether to put restrictions on him to protect him or raise him like a seeing child and allow him to explore his world unfettered. Daniel had some bad injuries growing up and lots of people worried about him, including Paulette, but when people asked her how she could let Daniel do the things he did, “she’d look at his smiling face and think, ‘How could I not?’”
The primary reason she decided to raise Daniel so differently from most blind kids was that she had removed herself from a physically abusive relationship and “vowed never to be ruled by fear again.” In the podcast, Paulette explained, “There’s life and then there’s living your life. There is a difference.” When the interviewer asked her about the fear that a car would hit and kill Daniel, Paulette replied, “But that could happen to anyone.”
Which brings me to the point of this post. As parents, we (and I do include myself) tie ourselves up in knots with our multitudinous fears for our children. Instead of acknowledging that bad things can and do happen to others and to us, and choosing to live our lives fully anyway, we spend huge amounts of treasure–our time, our love and energy–controlling our children’s time, movement, activities, and interactions in a foolhardy attempt to protect them from unpleasantness, pain and injury. We are seduced by the illusion that we can control their experience of the world.
I ached inside when my son had difficult interactions with schoolmates. It brought up distressing childhood memories. I hated that I couldn’t protect him from painful feelings. Although my desire to protect him was natural, trying to prevent painful interactions and save him from hurt came from an assumption, an expectation, that he was not capable of responding and learning and that the experience would diminish and damage him. I had low expectations and didn’t believe he had his own resources. He did. He does.
Time and time again, when I feel worry and fear creep in, I have to keep remembering and intoning a mantra of sorts: my son’s journey is separate from mine, he is a whole person, and it is his task to figure out how to navigate, endure and develop strength and wisdom in the painful experiences of life. The best way I can support him in that journey is to control what I can control: to choose what to do when I’m afraid; to identify what fear tells me about my expectations of him; and to see him as fundamentally healthy and whole.
The story of Daniel Kish is a reminder that none of us has any idea what each of us is capable of in most situations. Creating expectations about other people is debilitating because it creates artificial limits based on nothing. I don’t know the extent of my abilities and it is arrogant of me to predict the limits or extent of someone else’s.
I choose to live with a commitment to allow space and freedom for every one of us to set and re-set our expectations for ourselves without the burden of meeting or falling short of anyone else’s. Perhaps, abilities that seem extraordinary now will become more ordinary–and just as wonderful–because it won’t be unusual for all of us to keep growing and learning without expectations.
See Daniel Kish talk at PopTech about how he sees and how he helps other blind people learn the skill. He has a great definition of freedom: “We have found a way to help [blind students] reclaim their freedom, re-establish their capacity to direct their own achievements in a manner of their own choosing.”
Before you read on, I’d like you to watch this 2-½ minute video of a girl testifying before her local school board. Rather than be influenced by my experience of the video below, I’d love it if you would note your first reactions and what you noticed. Please post them in the comments, if you would like to join the conversation.
In the video, 9-year-old Sydney Smoot delivers a well-prepared and clear speech laying out her objections to the state assessment test (FSA). The video was posted on two of my favorite news-gathering sites, boing boing and The Mary Sue, and has received nearly 1.5 million views.
When I clicked play on the video, I was looking forward to hearing this girl’s perspective on standardized testing. As a critic of standardized testing, I pay attention to those who question and opt out of tests.
Instead of listening to Sydney, I couldn’t stop watching the adults in the audience, whose reactions were also captured by the camera recording the speaker. Emotions such as delight,, tenderness and regard intermingled with the one that I reacted to the most: amused condescension.
Sydney owned that speech; she became more passionate the longer she spoke. The speech was serious, yet there was an almost constant hum of chuckles and laughter throughout. At the end, she received a standing ovation. As I watched the video, I couldn’t stop thinking, “Those adults would never have responded to another adult the way they responded to Sydney.”
The adults in the room were, of course, delighted to see a young girl speak before a publicly elected body, a rare thing indeed. The adults were also entertained by the spectacle of a child speaking publicly in an adult forum. It’s as if she were a trained monkey, not a human being with an opinion who cared enough about the topic to prepare a speech and deliver it to elected officials.
The idea of speaking to an adult body would not occur to most children because they know in their bones that they are powerless. As individuals, they are not consulted when debating public policy. They are a monolithic group to be acted upon. They are not counted–they do not count.
When I was a child, I attended a small community church with my parents, who were active in the church leadership. Both my parents sang in church, so I joined the children’s choir. I began singing solos when I was Sydney’s age and continued to sing for the congregation through my teenage years. Those were formative experiences, because I developed a passion for singing that continues to this day.
In spite of that, I recognized the reactions I saw on adult faces in the video because those same reactions were directed at me when I was a child performing in an adult forum. All I had to do was show up and perform. It didn’t have to be good or well-rehearsed; the applause was given lavishly no matter what. Adults who performed also received applause and appreciation, but the appreciation was not patronizing as it was for me. On some level the applause was demeaning and I knew I couldn’t trust it, even though I came to crave it. I am still learning to accept applause without feeling like a fraud.
In addition to finding the adult condescension offensive, I had other reactions to Sydney and her speech. Without thought, these questions bubbled up: Did her parents help her write it? Did they rehearse it with her? Does she understand the big words she used?
Those questions are as offensive as the chuckling adults. Despite years of shedding adult privilege at The Clearwater School, I am still a product of a culture that does not see children as people and therefore has insane expectations of them. Those questions would not bubble up while watching an adult speaker, and even if they did, a “yes” answer would not be damning. Adults who are unpracticed at public speaking generally DO get help preparing and rehearsing their remarks. The POTUS has a speechwriter and speaking coaches, for heaven’s sake. And why did I wonder whether Sydney knew the meaning of the big words in her speech? Insulting.
For me, the best response to the chuckling adults and my offensive questions is to keep noticing with humility, compassion and a commitment to grow.