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What I Learned from Children

Originally published on, March 1, 2020

Chuang Tzu and Hui Tzu were strolling alongside the Hao River, when Chuang Tzu said, “See how the fish are coming up to the surface, and swimming around as they please? That is what they really enjoy.”

“You are not a fish,” said Hui Tzu. “So how can you know what fish enjoy?”

“I know it by being here,” replied Chuang Tzu, “by the banks of the River Hao.”

I never studied kids in a formal setting. I don’t recall reading any books or hearing any lectures that come to mind, or writing any research papers. So I can’t “prove” what I’ve learned, and I can’t give you the bibliography. But I have been working with kids of all ages since I was a kid myself… and there are some things that I have noticed over the years. Are these things of any value? You are welcome to judge for yourself.

The thing that always fascinated me the most about young children is that they don’t know how to lie. It’s literally not something they can grasp. They only know what is. It’s like the horse from Gulliver's Travels. They cannot conceive of something that is not, and they have an extremely powerful sense of “fairness”. They have to learn to lie, somewhere along the way.

Routine and familiarity are two of the most powerful forces in their lives. I often wonder if the brain is just built to survive, and this is one of its most basic mechanisms: “If it worked before, let’s just keep doing it,” so-to-speak. This has so many effects that I can only just begin to talk about them:

If they learn something, then that will be what they “know” from that moment on. Good luck changing what they “know”. It’s not about it being “correct” or not; it’s just that that is what got etched in their minds the first time, and from there on, it’s all over.

A classic example is if I sing a song to them one day, and then try to sing it again the next day but change a lyric or two. They won’t have it. My new song is “incorrect”, and no end of reasoning or bargaining is going to find me innocent of the worst kind of betrayal in their eyes. Their working assumption is that what they are accustomed to is “the truth”, and everything else needs to line up accordingly.

And the more powerful the experience through which they acquired this “knowledge” of theirs, or the longer they retain it as “the right thing”, the harder it is to present them with anything else.

Apply that to political debates between grown-ups, and you might get a sense of what we’re dealing with here.

No fear is greater for children than the fear of the unknown. Pain? Sadness? Embarrassment? Sure, those have their place. But nothing shocks kids into silence more than something they don’t know how to react to: Something they’ve never seen, or someone they’ve never met or aren’t used to. It’s true that when you get rid of their routine, they go nuts. But that’s the second phase. The first phase is shock. They freeze and stare at this new thing with huge eyes, and they generally don’t move until they feel more comfortable.

Parents who walk into the classroom may be curious to see a row of knee-high toddlers standing and staring at them, while I do my best rendition of happy dance music to a silent, awkward room. But the kids are just taking in this new player in the game. They’ll dance when they feel comfortable again.

What’s the quietest day of the year in middle school? If you ask me: the first day. Once they get used to you, they start to get comfortable, and from there on it’s open season. I think that even a very organized teacher, who knows how to control a class, would agree with me that kids tend to be pretty quiet on the first day. That’s one of the reasons why it’s so great to build all the right habits early on.

And how does fear of the unknown apply to your own life?

But the last, and probably the greatest, “defining factor” with kids - is love. Proximity. If fear of the unknown is one of the things that silences them, then just having an older person nearby is the other. But then it isn’t the silence of shock, it’s the calmness and confidence of compassion. Just about every teacher I know will go over to just sit next to the child who is having trouble, and that’s where most of the trouble ends. It gets drowned out in closeness, and in no small number of cases, in cuddles. But they can’t help but change their behavior. No words are wasted, no reprimands, no instructions, no threats.

In elementary schools, we used to be told that during recess, the most effective way to make sure that kids are not doing anything crazy is just to be there. And let them see that you’re there. They become more aware, and in a good way. And they have more freedom to have fun, because they are more aware of themselves (not to mention that they feel supported).

I have worked with kids one-on-one, and I have worked with tens of them at a time. When the group is larger, proximity disappears (or is greatly lessened). There is so much going on that there is just barely time for emotions; it becomes all about actions: What is going on is more important than how everyone is feeling. The larger the group, the greater the effect. So many things get lost in a large group.

And the larger the group, the more careful we have to be as teachers, because things can spiral out of control exponentially. In a small group, I can let the kids flop on the floor when they’re dancing. In a large group? They’ll get stepped on. In a small group, yelling and screaming is no big deal. In a large group? It’s mayhem. There are so many examples… Ultimately, it’s the need to control larger and larger groups that causes us, as adults, to come up with more rules, more laws, and less freedoms.

And children in small groups mature differently, in my experience: They see each other, and to put my finger on the defining factor, they see each other’s feelings. A classic example is that children will often stumble over each other in class. In a large group, it’s all about “what happened”, and a simple accident often turns into a blame game. In small groups I’ve seen, kids are a lot more likely to notice that it was just an accident. They see how the other child is feeling - they are not angry, or mocking; they just stumbled, and bumped. No big deal. And there is also more time for resolution.

In the words of Brene Brown, and apparently many others who say this: It’s harder to hate people in person. So get closer. And I mean physically closer. Emotions will follow.

And kids pick up on your mood. If you are close to them but stressed out, they will get stressed out. If you are calm and loving, they’ll pick up on that, instead. So as people often say: If you want to help your children, help yourself.

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