Less than two weeks after NPR’s How to Raise a Human series addressed the issue of chores, they focused on the same Maya children to talk about paying attention, and once again they contradicted many of the messages of their piece with the headline: A Lost Secret: How to Get Kids To Pay Attention.
First of all, the approach they talk about is clearly not “lost” or “secret.” And as with getting your kids to do chores, it’s all about how to get your kids to pay attention, which again focuses on parental manipulation and control.
That’s ironic, since the psychologist who’s been studying the Maya families for decades says, “Rather than having the mom set the goal — and then having to offer enticements and rewards to reach that goal — the child is setting the goal…Then the parents support that goal however they can.”
That makes it pretty clear that the parents are respecting the children’s intelligence, competence, and individuality. The expert goes on to say, “The parents feel very strongly that every child knows best what they want…And that goals can be achieved only when a child wants it.”
Is it difficult to embrace those principles in a society whose child-rearing and educational practices have veered so far in other directions? Sure, but I think the reasons for that difficulty run deeper than the practical ones the article cites, such as safety and busy modern lifestyles. In order to really practice the principles of granting your kids freedom and autonomy, you have to believe in them. If you were raised in a culture and system that believes and practices the opposite, and you’re raising your own kids in that same culture and system, really believing in the competence of your children to guide their own lives is the hard part.
“Acting as if” is a good place to start. When you give your kids autonomy and freedom and see them flourish, it can be transformative for you as well as them. That helps, but don’t expect long-ingrained messages to just disappear. Even after years of unschooling, there were plenty of times I still had to “act as if” because of my own doubts and fears. Writing is one example. I only had one kid who really wanted to do it from a young age. The others didn’t take it up seriously until double digits. When they did, the terrible spelling and complete lack of punctuation and paragraphing were a little scary. In the end, patience on my part was all that was required. They all turned out to be fine writers, in their own time and in their own ways.
Mustering faith and resisting the urge to interfere was also required when my 13-year-old decided to helm and star in a production of “Hamlet.” That was easier for me in some ways, as the stakes were lower. Bombing a Shakespeare play at age 13 was different than failing to acquire a skill as basic as writing. There were some parents that did struggle with it, and one of them came to me part way through the rehearsal process. At that point it didn’t appear that things were coming together smoothly, and her concern was that a failed production might be emotionally difficult for the kids. I had the luxury of feeling relaxed about it, so I and the other parent, who was also my friend, were able to talk and come to the conclusion that no one was expecting the Royal Shakespeare Company, and it would be what it would be, which turned out to be pretty fabulous. In my journey of raising humans with freedom and autonomy, building a community of supportive friends was vital. I was already lucky enough to have a supportive partner, but interacting with other families, helping each other out, and sharing our ideas and concerns was not only helpful, it contributed significantly to the meaning and fulfillment of our lives.
Another concern I have about any discussion that involves kids “paying attention” is the value judgments it automatically conjures. Giving kids autonomy and freedom can help them be more engaged and present, sure, but it doesn’t guarantee they’re going to “pay attention” in every situation, because they’re not going to find every situation interesting or compelling. I had one child who had all the hallmarks of ADHD. If you caught that kid in the wrong moment, you’d think their attention span was nonexistent. In other situations, you’d marvel at the extraordinary ability to focus.
This leads me to the importance of minimizing the “evaluative gaze” that Carol Black so brilliantly addresses in this essay. That process is not simple or linear, and for me, anyway, it has a nasty way of persisting. Just the other day I evoked the gaze in a conversation with one of my daughters. She was telling me about her experiences working one-on-one with an artist she admires, and was quite excited about the technical and creative progress she was making. “Does he like your work?” I asked. My daughter paused a moment, then said, “That’s not really my concern.” I kicked that old evaluative demon back to the curb, and felt grateful that at least my daughter has her head on straight about why she’s doing what she’s doing.
Being present, being happy, being involved in the world, lending a hand when it’s needed–the benefits for giving kids judgment-free autonomy and freedom go on and on. When we really understand the value of giving our kids agency to choose how they spend their time, when we truly believe in their competence, when we celebrate who they are as individuals, we can begin to know and see them, which may be the most important benefit of all. Being seen is a profound human need, and the essence of being loved.