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Guiding our Children into Society: “No” for us is “Yes” for them

“The unexpectedly rigorous business of bringing up children exposed me, as it necessarily exposes almost any parents, to our ‘child-centered’ society’s icy indifference to everything that makes it possible for children to flourish and to grow up to be responsible adults.” (Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven: Progress and its Critics, p. 33).

We spent an evening at our first parent-enrichment last week discussing and reflecting upon the importance of establishing good boundaries for our children by setting them most clearly for ourselves. The difference between our approach to the discipline that young children need and that of authoritarian-type parenting consists in a form of necessary self-reflection; “no” for us becomes “yes” for them. “Yes” you may play outside, climb a tree, sweep the porch, sit in the swing, play with a friend – emerges easily out of practices that do not allow iPads or television in our young children’s lives, sets time limits to play dates, bed times, dinner-table routines or rowdiness. We also need to deny ourselves the pleasures of too much screen time or overindulgence, while creating pleasurable time with our children: lying around doing nothing, doing chores together, hiking, family game nights, camping, traveling. These experiences of “togetherness” are the building blocks of our future, older families. These are daily practices of self-discipline. And if we know our children thrive in a predictable world designed by us through our abilities to set limits for ourselves, they will want to enter into that world in healthy ways.

Not only do these limit-setting practices help our young children, but they will help us as we and our children age – to know ourselves and to arrive quickly at the answers we need to difficult questions. What will we do when our 9 or 10 year old asks to go to a friend’s house and we don’t know that friend? What will we do when they encounter another family’s values and they are different from ours? How will we cut through the chaos of conflict that other value-systems will bring into our homes if we have not examined our own values and decided how we will act as a family? Inevitably we will encounter these other sets of values (if the television is on other people’s values are already in our home). But we will know that no matter the issue we need to wade through we’ll meet at the dinner table, or speak to one another respectfully, or give one another space if needed, or create opportunities for each other to feel better. This is the “fabric of family”.

We’ll be able to do this only if we’ve spent the time in our children’s early years, establishing well-thought-out practices of “togetherness” and discourse. If we push our young children away from our homes too early, we will lose touch with each other’s needs. We will not respect each family member’s difference. We will invite chaos into our homes and struggle to tame it. Our young children’s lives offer us the time to become “family” and to build strong foundations out of self-knowledge.

Storytelling African-Style

There is nothing more lovely than telling a story outdoors, living into the images our own imaginations conjure, while the leaves rustle and the wind cools. We take inspiration from African storytelling which values the moment of storytelling as well as the images that need to be conveyed. One of my teachers, Harold Scheub, helps here: “Storytellers are constantly in the process of taking ancient images and casting them into contemporary kinds of forms. And so there’s no such thing as an original story. I don’t care where it is, whether it’s written or oral, the fact is that every story has been heard before. Every story has been told before. So if we’re looking for originality we’re going to find it, but in unique kinds of ways. We’re not going to find it the way a story is told, we’re not going to find it in the story itself. It’s that connection, that’s the important thing. Connections are everything. Connecting the present and the past, connecting the storyteller and the audience.” ( “The Man with 10,000 Tales” by Tim McDonnel. http://narrative.ly/the-man-with-10000-tales/) When we choose the stories we tell the children it is purely out of this connection that we operate.

The stories we tell are old, orally-transmitted tales, folktales, or pedagogical tales. We tell stories appropriate to the ages of our children, the season, and the make-up of the group. Story time on most days is silent – not a pin drop can be heard – because the children are so absorbed by the telling, the imagery, the lyricism, and the repetition. Young children love to hear a good story over and over; we tell each of our stories for three to four weeks. Stories contain gems that allow children to encounter wolves, thieves, giants, or elves. But these elements are true. So, for example, when I tell “Bremen Town Musicians”, each animal does not become “human” it remains within the bounds of its characteristics: the nervous rooster, the lazy cat, the chatty dog, and the clever donkey. These are not Disney characters who are really just humans in disguise. These are animals confronting their mortality and finding strength in one another.

Another story, “The Turnip”, seems very simple at first. But the group effort needed for all the characters to pull the turnip out of the ground is a magical image of helping one another make the harvest. I watched the children “act it out” last week and will never forget the looks of joy as each child wrapped their arms around the person in front of them in order to pull out the two children who were the “turnip”. Our children need images of social cooperation more than ever.

Unlike reading a story, our stories are not told “perfectly” every time. And sometimes the teller embellishes or erases details, much to the delight of the listeners. Our “Africanization” of storytelling gives the child permission to tell her own stories – to take a story into play with other children, to tell a story he’s heard before without worrying about whether they it’s “right”. Again, the perfectionism inherent in our industrially fabricated material realities (books) can hinder our children from becoming authors, ready to jump into the creative abyss of their own abilities.

Literacy is nothing if it is not love of stories and story telling. Children who are not forced to read too early have time to author their own tales, to play with language, and to hold a captive audience with whomever will listen – perhaps a small audience of stones and bottle caps (as my daughter used to do). Reading is useless if our readers don’t know the value of a story. And in order to love that story, our children need to be free from other people’s images (either in books or in videos) and to hear tales rich with ancient images cast both in old clothing as well as contemporary garb.

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Ready to begin!

The yard sits ready; dirt, sand, shade, plants. Teachers have created summer circle, chosen stories, and decided the menu. Crafts and chores await. We’ll be planting and playing, learning while doing; new poems and new languages. And, most importantly, we’ll be making new friends.

Our late summer menu:

And, here’s our Late Summer Menu, 2017.

Mondays: Rice Day
Salad: Carrot Salad
Main: Vegetable curry and rice Dessert: Crackly Banana Muffins

Tuesdays: Bread Day
Salad: Green salad with goat cheese rounds Main: Bread and butter
Dessert: Fresh fruit and yogurt

Wednesdays: Roots Day
Salad: Green salad
Main: Tarte au Pistou; Provençal tart made with onions, tomatoes, basil, and garlic
Dessert: Fresh fruit

Thursdays: Golden Grains Day
Salad: Green salad
Main: Provençal tomato, brown rice, gruyére and summer squash gratin Dessert: Berry or cherry clafoutis (baked custard with fruit)

Fridays: Legumes Day
Salad: Green salad
Main: Green (puy) lentils with tahini and cumin served with wild-yeasted bread (The levain now 4 years old.)
Dessert: Fresh fruit
Cheese: Stinky cheese; we’ll taste different cheeses every week.

*Many of this season’s veggies are supplied by “Happy Hollow Farm” a community-supported organic family farm, when they don’t come from our garden.

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Pretend Play Makes Us Social

“You build the train-station. We’ll build the train. Who wants to be the conductor?”

All the children begin dragging chairs across the yard and setting-up station stops. One child becomes the conductor, another becomes a worker who needs to go home, and another becomes a traveller who is visiting a friend in Chicago. This is an everyday scenario in the play yard at Garden Gate. The game may or may not continue into the following day; but undeniably, another game of role-play will occur. “Free-play”, as we call it, takes place once the children are settled and most of their “playing-out” is over, that is, clearing their systems of noise created by exposure to the media or too much adult conversation. It takes place in an intentionally quiet and simple environment, usually outdoors.

As an anthropologist, I view the work of creating an environment where children’s imaginations can flourish as equal to the task of building a virtuous society. I see the link between the individual and society as the most important function of human imagination. I have no doubt that every child has an individual imaginary-world, but every child can also use these innate capacities to explore the distinction between themselves and society. Imagination is a child’s opportunity to join in to an “already constituted system of conventions and institutions.” I fear that education as construed in our society is so focused on applying individual imaginations to competing with others, that we will ultimately shred our social fabric, if it’s not already a fait accompli.

Children, beginning at two can separate the signifier from the signified – the person from the role – in pretend play. One anthropologist notes the importance of play that manipulates the order of things and time: “in order to pretend that a stone is an apple that one can eat, both the concept of stone and of apple need to be separated from the here and now.” The capacity to separate time from representation allows children to create social roles and groupings. As imagination develops children are able to elaborate these separations of person from role in ever-complex ways. It allows children of 4 and 5 to begin games that both imitate society and affect it. When role-play enables young children to become “husbands” and “wives” simply because the priest said, “I hereby declare you man and wife”, children can re-create marriage. They can re-create the world.

Most importantly for this anthropologist, learning social roles is the child’s connection to a shared imagination – social roles do not exist if they are not understood by all. Being the “conductor” or the “traveller” or the “mother” or “postman” or “fireman” or “hunter” or “soldier” has no meaning if it is not shared by others. Pretend play allows our children to connect their imaginations to society – they enter into the social world through role-playing. Roles are independent of actual individuals. This capacity to separate the individual from the role is uniquely human but can be poorly developed if not nurtured.

When a child constructs an imaginary social world with other children, s/he is entering a space where the rules are different, where the role becomes paramount and when the game is over, the child will discard the role. Developmental psychology confirms that this capacity is hardwired in us, beginning around six months old. And this is why, when we tell our children “it’s pretend” or “not true” or “not real”, they do not understand; for they already unconsciously understand. Countless times I have witnessed parents of young children “reassure” their child that fairy’s and elves or any other imaginary aid is “only pretend”, to the disorientation or apparent relief of the child. This pretense about reality is ultimately confusing, for as the young child will grow away from their need to pretend play, s/he will develop new ways of seeing the world.

“Pretend” was not a lie; it was one way of seeing reality. If taught correctly, the child will learn that there are multiple ways of seeing the world and that an individual assumes a lot of power in privileging one perspective over another. Young children are built to generate their own realities and systems of rules in order to explore the world. Older children will exploit different capacities to view the world; capacities such as analytic, narrative, numeric, aesthetic, poetic, mnemonic. Parents should feel certain that these abilities will emerge when the child is ready. We as parents, but also as a society, need to nurture the space and time for them to do this.

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*This piece was inspired by the work of Maurice Bloch, social anthropologist working in Madagascar since the 1960s. He examined the role of imagination in the contexts of religion, science, and society. His work draws on developmental psychology, history, and ethnography in Madagascar. Imagination, for Bloch, is “a basic element of the process between perception and cognition,” an ability to “create images in the brain separate from perceived stimulus.” And he argues “only humans can imagine a separation between a state of affairs and its full existence in the past or future.”

Maurice Bloch. June 2016. “Imagination from the Outside and from the Inside,” Current Anthropology, Vol. 57, Supplement 13.