CHILDREN ARE BORN PERSONS
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home: Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
(section from) Intimations of Immortality by William Wordsworth
WE ARE EDUCATING SOULS
“If we have not proved that a child is born a person with a mind as complete and beautiful as his little body, we can at least show that he always has all the mind he requires for these occasions; that is, that his mind is the instrument of his education, and that his education does not produce his mind.”
I want you to imagine you and your children living together in the premortal realm receiving lessons and being prepared as equals (see D&C 138:56 and Alma 13:3). Our spirits were educated and prepared long before we were born, and I believe that true education is not actually teaching children completely new concepts, but reminding them of things they already knew to be true. Children are often compared to clay; an inanimate object that does not act and will not become anything unless molded, shaped, and acted upon. But I believe this comparison can be the cause of much anxiety and frustration among parents because children do not act like lifeless clay; they are living, breathing souls and are active agents in their own development.
Our soul is made up of our spirit and our body, and while our spirit is mature and experienced, our body is not. Our children’s body and brain develop in stages, and while the stages are fairly predictable (e.g. children start walking between 8-24 months), each child will develop skills based on their own timeline and how they develop those skills are unique to the individual.
Children are essentially a walking paradox: they are mature and capable of deep, intellectual thoughts; yet, their inability to control their emotions and comprehend the simplest of natural laws can be maddening. This is where parents and educators stumble teaching young children. How do we effectively teach someone who is our equal in spirituality, but needs so much training in the ways of the world? This is something I struggle with daily; I certainly have not mastered teaching in this way yet, but there are some key principles that have helped me see my children as mature, yet developing human beings.
TEACH PEOPLE, NOT LESSONS
“Bring up your children in the love and fear of the Lord; study their dispositions and their temperaments, and deal with them accordingly…”
Lev Vygotsky was a Soviet psychologist who has contributed much to our current understanding of child development. He believed that children learn much better when knowledge is gained through relationships. One of his theories that has made teaching children much more effective is the “zone of proximal development.” There are essentially three “zones” of tasks that children are capable of: tasks that they can do independently, tasks that they are completely incapable of yet, and the zone of proximal development, which describes the tasks that a child can complete with the help of an adult.
The framework of traditional education is heavily focused on the skills–or tasks–that children can complete on their own. This is completely understandable when a teacher has 25+ students to teach. But when we focus on the tasks a child can complete on their own, we are focusing on the past. When we focus on what a child is on the verge of developing, we are focusing on the future. This kind of teaching requires a lot of one-on-one teaching and is time-intensive.
However, no one is more equipped to teach a child in their “zone” than a parent who knows their child and what they are capable of. Watch your child and take note of which tasks are in their three zones. Focus on the tasks that are in their zone of proximal development and put your energy towards developing those. Here is an example: While watching my four year old clean I’ve noticed that he can put a few books on the shelf, he can put away a whole box of blocks, and he can put pillows on the couch. If I help him, he can clean up his entire room, put away all the books in the library, and he can clean up an entire game. He is not capable of doing the dishes or mopping the floor, with or without my help.
Meet the Child
Stop focusing on which grade level your child “should” be at or where you want them to be. Look at them as a person with unique attributes and abilities. See where they are at this moment and meet them there. Before you help your child or teach them a subject, find out what the child needs from you and ask them questions to find out what they already know. This is what Charlotte Mason meant when she said to meet the child where they are at. This kind of instruction is time and labor intensive. It requires the teacher to know her student well and to work with the student’s timeline and abilities, not a scheduled, one-size-fits-all curriculum.
This kind of teaching is focused on adjusting the material to fit the needs of the student, not adjusting the student to fit the requirements of the curriculum.
Christ taught people, not lessons. When we are preparing lessons and activities we should focus on the person we are teaching and their “zone.” Take note of books that may be too easy to understand, or too hard. Try to limit activities that can be accomplished alone, these are what most students call “busywork”–work that is accomplished without the scaffolding of a teacher and is a review of information already learned instead of learning new skills. How can you possibly teach multiple young children this way? It is actually quite simple: School lessons are spent mostly one-on-one (or alternating between students), and they are short. For example, elementary students spend between 5-15 minutes learning about each subject, so school should only take 1-2 hours. The rest of the day is left open for students to practice their mastered skills independently in projects of their choosing (self-education will be covered in the next post.) As children mature, the teachers role changes and less time is needed one-on-one, especially when they can read their school books on their own. Lesson time will slowly increase with each year as the child’s ability to focus is strengthened. After this point, scaffolding may consist of creating a schedule, choosing books, and discussing the books with your child.
Be prepared to adjust plans as necessary, and do not make schedules too far in advance. Children develop and mature quickly as they are taught in their zone, and their interests change as well. In Charlotte Mason’s schools, she did not have a fixed curriculum or plan for a whole year at a time. She planned each term (three months) one at a time. Personally, I have found this to work well; I plan some subjects for a whole term, other subjects I make a plan for six weeks, then re-evaluate and adjust. I give myself a broad structure, say historical period of 1800-1900, and then have lots of freedom within that structure to pursue my child’s interests. Narration and play are the tools to help gauge your child’s zone of proximal development and to get a glimpse into what they are interested in. Narration will be explained in-depth in a later article; for now, you can read this article.
NATURE VS. NURTURE
“All human beings—male and female—are created in the image of God. Each is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents, and, as such, each has a divine nature and destiny.
excerpt from THE FAMILY: A PROCLAMATION TO THE WORLD
Any parent will tell you that each of their children are very different from one another. They were born with their own personality, experience, and abilities, and these are apparent before they were born. Despite similar genetics, home environment, and parenting, siblings make different choices and have unique personalities. There have been many theories throughout the centuries trying to explain the puzzling behavior of young children and how they develop. Many people believed that because we are born in a fallen state, that children are born inherently evil and need to have the “devil beaten out of them.” Literally. Others believed that children are born inherently good and that it is the sinful, fallen world that corrupts them. And then there is John Locke and B.F.Skinner who believed that children were born blank slate; that a person’s personality, preferences, and abilities were all due to the nurturing they received.
With so many conflicting opinions how can we distinguish the truth? If we believe children are born evil then we will believe any negative behavior is sinful and needs to be punished. If we believe that children are inherently good, then we should take on a laissez-faire sort of parenting style, where most everything they do is good and we should avoid correcting them. If they are born blank-slate, then the choices our children make and what they ultimately become is completely up to the parents. I don’t know about other parents, but if I believed every choice my child made and his whole character was based on my parenting, I don’t think I would have ever chosen to be a parent.
Many parenting books are based on this last theory, known as “behaviorism.” This theory affects much more than we realize. Teachers may see their students that come from disadvantaged homes as less competent or not able to comprehend difficult material as their more advantaged peers. And in their deep compassion may not have as high of expectations or provide them with as rigorous material as their more advantaged peers. But research and experience has shown that intelligence goes much deeper than just home life and genetics. Although earthly experience definitely influences a child’s intellect, it doesn’t define him or her. When given the chance, children from disadvantaged homes have been found to rise to their teachers’ expectations and show they have a spiritual maturity and intelligence that would not be possible according to behaviorism. (see chapter nine of The Smartest Kids in the World)
“The person rises to understand, master, and enjoy whatever he is surrounded with in language, ideas, literature, and in appreciation of beauty. If you share with children the very best, carefully chosen to meet their needs, they will amaze everyone.”
SUSAN SCHAEFFER MACAULAY
TEMPERATE IN ALL THINGS
“The fact seems to be that children are like ourselves, not because they have become so, but because they are born so; that is, with tendencies, dispositions, towards good and evil, and also with a curious intuitive knowledge as to which is good and which is evil.”
As usual, truth can be found in the scriptures, and it is usually a tempering of the extreme views of the world.
We are born with two opposing forces: the Light of Christ and the Natural Man. In the Church Gospel Topics manual, the Light of Christ is defined as “the divine energy, power, or influence that proceeds from God through Christ and gives life and light to all things. The Light of Christ influences people for good and prepares them to receive the Holy Ghost. One manifestation of the Light of Christ is what we call a conscience.”
As for the natural man, or the opposing force, King Benjamin defines the natural man as “an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit…” (Mosiah 3:19)
Interestingly, Charlotte Mason was radical in her day in that she believed children are not born tabula rosa (blank slate), but are born with possibilities for both good and evil. Dr. Gordon Neufeld explained this same idea in his book Hold on to Your Kids in such a profound way that my parenting and knowledge of the gospel has been changed forever. He said that maturity is the ability to temper our impulses with the opposing feeling; we are all born with intense feelings (hate/love, fear/courage, sadness/joy, etc.) and maturity is the ability to temper the possibly destructive impulse with the attribute that opposes it. We have been commanded in the scriptures to be temperate in all things (Galatians 5:22-23, Alma 38:10, 7:23).
For example, when I was a child and felt angry at another person I may have the impulse to hit them, but over time that has been tempered with love and compassion for other human beings and it has overcome the impulse to physically hurt them. Becoming an adult does not mean we have reached maturity, however; maturity comes from learning how to temper the impulses of the natural man with the Light of Christ. Immaturity is feeling one intense feeling at a time: anger, love, happiness, sorrow, but not at the same time. Later, when you realize the consequence of acting on your emotions, there is guilt, sadness, and remorse. If those emotions are not tempered with compassion and love, self-hatred and loathing can make it even harder to change.
Young children are new to these opposing forces and have not yet learned to temper the feelings that we all feel on a daily basis. They can be so loving and compassionate one minute, then turn into a violent perpetrator the next.
It is important that we do not label emotions as “bad” or “good.” Emotions are not evil or righteous, it is how we act on emotions that is good or bad. It is the choices we make that will either bring us happiness or misery. I find it interesting to read in the scriptures that Christ displayed the full spectrum of human emotions; sorrow, anger, happiness, even depression.
Here are a few of them:
- “My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even unto death;” (Mark 14:38)
- “Yea, I will visit them in my fierce anger,” Helaman 13:10 (also Mosiah 12:1)
- “And now behold, my joy is full. And when he had said these words, he wept.” (3 Nephi 20)
- “Behold, my bowels are filled with compassion towards you.” (3 Nephi 17:6)
Instead of telling our children that they shouldn’t feel sad, angry, jealous, etc. We should be:
- Acknowledging their feelings and not shaming them,
- Discussing how they acted on that particular emotion and the consequences of their action,
- Then, assisting the child in bringing out the opposing feeling. This should be done after the strong emotions have simmered down, not in the middle of it. Trust me, this doesn’t work well.
I have noticed a trend among my boys: when there is a moment during family devotional when the Spirit is strong, they go haywire. They start making silly sounds, jumping on the couch, or tackling me and my husband. For the past year or so I could not figure out why they would disrupt a perfectly spiritual moment like this. Then I realized that if children are not capable of tempering emotions like anger and sadness, they cannot temper their joy and strong sense of feeling the Spirit. Ultimately, they lack the maturity to temper their joy with respect and reverence. Since that time, I have started seeing their energy not as a disruption or naughty behavior, but as a sign that their spirit is full of joy, and I have been trying to help them recognize that and put it into words.
There is so much going on under the surface of our child that we cannot see. There is also so much experience our child gained before this life that we have no knowledge of, or have forgotten. Instead of assuming the worst when they make a mistake, we should have a “benign assumption.” This means that we assume the child had good intentions, but was lacking knowledge when they made their choice (or were completely overcome by emotion). We can help them recognize the consequence of their choice and help them figure out what they can do better next time. When we assume the worst every time our child makes a mistake, we will inadvertently bring out the worst in them. Christ wants us to see the best in our child; see them as a person with good intentions who is simply lacking the experience and knowledge adults have.
Children develop in stages; they must go through a set of physical, mental, and emotional milestones that are dictated by eternal laws. For example, during the first two years of life the child mainly operates from their brain stem. Their movements are automatic and governed by reflexes. After two years old, their limbic system starts to develop and this coincides with “the terrible twos.” The limbic system of the brain controls emotions, and we certainly witness their innocent souls overcome with each emotion as it presents itself. In combination with the knee-jerk reactions of the brain stem, this is a recipe for disaster. Combine the automatic flight-or-fight responses of the brain stem along with pure anger, sadness, and joy and you get the tantrums and aggression that are so characteristic of toddlerhood. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for reasoning and planning, and this does not start developing until around eight years old, on average. It is amazing to me that Heavenly Father has told us since the beginning of time that young children are not held accountable for their mistakes. They are not capable of sin, and thanks to modern science we know why. In order to sin we must 1) know what is wrong and what is right, 2) willfully choose to go against what we know to be right. This requires the ability to reason, and a child’s brain is not capable of that higher function until around 8 years old. We may see short flickers of the ability to reason and resist temptation as they get close to eight years old, but it certainly isn’t constant.
A wise, loving Heavenly Father does not hold children under the age of eight accountable for their actions and neither should we (see Moroni 8). This is a stage that should be dedicated to teaching and connecting. Correct your child when he/she makes a mistake, teach them good habits, and connect with them so they know that you love and cherish them more than anything else. This is extremely difficult, especially because this is most probably counter to what we experienced as children. For most of us (including myself) this requires a paradigm shift, along with overcoming the natural man. Remember, you are still developing too. Focus on progress, not perfection.
Rest, Play, Grow
Many, if not all, parents today feel the enormous responsibility to “mature” their children. It is a heavy burden to bear; to assume that a child’s maturation and development rests solely on your shoulders. However, Charlotte Mason believed that the mind developed much like the body; parents provide nourishment and rest, but ultimately the body takes care of its own growth. As an example, we are not responsible for turning on the hormones each night, or setting a timer for when the baby teeth should start falling out. Neither can we speed up normal growth by feeding them more food or forcing them to sleep longer hours. Maturation and development of the mind works the same way: if we provide nourishment (experiences, ideas, etc) and rest (connection and safety) their minds will develop and mature at the rate they are supposed to. We can relax and trust the process. Our children will develop the ability to walk as long as we give them opportunities and support. However, they will do it on their own timeline. We cannot force them to walk at two months old by discovering the secret formula and putting in extra time. The same goes for independence, self-regulation, and other fruits of maturation; we cannot force a three year old to self-regulate any more than we can force a two month old to walk.
Growing up as the oldest of six children and now raising three boys of my own, I have noticed that most “undesirable” behavior is simply a stage that the child will grow out of soon. I remember my brother throwing massive tantrums around seven years old. He would scream, punch the walls, and spit out hateful words. As stressful as this was for my parents, they did their best to love him and help him understand his strong emotions. A couple months later he grew out of it. He was never aggressive or violent after that stage. In fact, he is the calmest, most composed sibling I have. The key is to make sure your child feels loved, and ensure they know what is expected of them. When dealing with development it’s important to remember that today is not forever.
Children are born persons, with previous experiences and personalities. They are not born purely evil or good, but have tendencies for both; they are born into a natural body which is tempered by the light of Christ that has been with us since before birth. Children are bound by the natural laws of development that we all should understand and respect, because the Lord (and His creations) work “line-upon-line” (Doctrine and Covenants 128:21). When we realize that we are not responsible for achieving a certain result, we are free to love our children for who they are, which will prepare their hearts and minds to be taught.