This article is a response to the quote pictured below. It always generates a lot of feedback. Often, people disagree, but I think they just may not understand what I am trying to say. This concept is complex and requires explaining in order to differentiate it from free-range parenting, which it is not.
“What if, instead of trying to teach our children everything we know about the world, we just love them? Children are natural learners, it is as natural as nursing. Our children are already being taught by the world around them. Even the grasshopper and the leaf have thousands of lessons for children to learn. Only a child’s parents are capable of demonstrating the profound lesson of how to be loved with complete acceptance. Ensuring secure attachment, through responsive caregiving is the single most important role every parent has. Keep it simple, just love them.” J. Milburn
Note added to post: I realize nursing does not come naturally to everyone and “learning” itself can be harder for some than others. However, children have evolved to be intrinsically motivated to seek nourishment, comfort and knowledge. With a typically developing child, these impulses can help the child get their needs met. With children who struggle in any of these areas, they still tend to be motivated to meet their needs, they may just require more support or a personalized approach to do so. Regardless, I strongly believe unconditional love and acceptance is the most important gift we can offer our children. This fosters secure attachment which will serve as a secure base and only further facilitate the meeting of all their needs.
What Do We Believe About Learning?
The accepted belief amongst most of the professionals in the field of child development is we do not believe that children’s minds are empty vessels that need to be filled with knowledge. We especially do not believe it is our sole job to fill them. Instead, we have observed that when children feel safe and free to explore, they are active learners, that need little guidance. The famous poet, William Yeats, has been credited with saying “Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.” Despite the controversy over the origin of the quote, it is one that has inspired the field of Early Childhood Education for decades now. It is similar to the Child Development theories of Jean Piaget. He was the founder of The Stages of Cognitive Development and theorized many of the concepts that shaped Constructivism theory. He focused his career on the idea that “children are not empty vessels to be filled with knowledge” but “active builders of knowledge–little scientists who are constantly creating and testing their own theories of the world.” I’ve also heard it explained as we (adults) are not the keepers of all knowledge, with the authority to dole it out as we see fit. Rather we strive for parents/educators to co-construct knowledge with children, by facilitating their learning, not directing it.
I know some people are saying “well if every child just learns everything naturally, why don’t they all learn the same things?” Great question! Because so many things influence a child’s ability and motivation to learn. Context, privilege and access to resources can greatly impact a child’s ability to learn. A scared and/or hungry child is not a child who is learning how to thrive in this world, they are learning how to survive. It is our belief that secure attachment is one of the true foundations of developing a life long love of learning. But that is not all, intrinsic motivation is also a key component to developing a holistic understanding of the world (not just knowing abc’s and 123’s but having common sense, problem solving skills, emotional intelligence and empathy). How do you encourage intrinsic motivation? (read this article) But the gist of it is, try to avoid explicitly teaching children every lesson YOU think they need to know. Try following their lead, when it comes to learning about the world. Focus on things they are interested in and are meaningful to them. Doesn’t that sound like love? Don’t you feel loved and accepted when people do that with you?
A Radical Perspective
This may seem like a radical perspective but, I really hope my children do not think and feel how I do about everything. I want my children to have their own minds. I frankly think my children are already smarter and kinder than I am. It’s a scary reality but I’m pretty sure I’m completely incapable of preparing my children for THIS world, since I did not grow up in this world. When I was in High School, only a few kids had cellphones, there was no Facebook or You Tube and no one’s phone had a camera. No, I don’t believe it is a sound plan to believe that it is MY job to teach them EVERYTHING. What a bias perspective they would have! My job is to show them unconditional love, to cradle them in that love, while they explore and learn about the world. I don’t know what they will need to know. My parents didn’t know what I needed to know. It really is a form of childism when we assume that parents know everything, children know nothing and it is our job to “teach” them to think and be like us. I don’t know… to me that has a hint of narcissism and egocentrism. When I say that, I’m not calling YOU narcissistic. I’m asking you to question this societal perception that the job of a parent is to teach their child EVERYTHING about the world.
For one thing, it’s not realistic, since you can’t teach things you don’t know and most parents (people) don’t know EVERYTHING. Instead, a more practical approach may be to prepare them for self-directed learning by supporting secure attachment. It is typically the best way to ensure your child is able to learn independently, which will be necessary. A baby/child who feels safe and secure, is able to self-regulate and focus enough to learn. Just trying to teach them everything, without that foundation of secure attachment is like trying to hang curtains in a house that has not even laid their foundation yet. What I am saying is; don’t focus on teaching, focus on loving and the learning will come naturally. I am not saying don’t teach anything ever, I’m saying FOCUS on love and trust that your child is capable of learning what they need to know.
What Is Love?
When I say “love” I do not mean just hugs, kisses and “I love you”’s. Those are demonstrations of affection and love. In order to “love” your child, you must be responsive to their needs. Being responsive and demonstrating unconditional acceptance is how we put our love into action. This can be done in conjunction with learning. They are not separate. Rather they support each other and that’s the point. Unconditional love and acceptance provides the safe space children need to learn. An adult that understands their needs and meets them is one who loves them.
Being responsive and demonstrating unconditional acceptance is how we put our love into action.
A Cognitive Shift
In response to those who may say “so you just let them walk out in front of a car because they need to learn?” No, it’s a shift in perspective; you observe their current development and maintain boundaries that strike a balance between safety and supporting autonomy. This means they are in a carrier or stroller, then maybe move up to holding your hand. When they ask “why do I have to hold your hand?” (which they most likely will), you will say “I need to keep you safe on the street.” Over time, this is how they learn why they need to stay away from moving cars. You will know when your child is ready to walk without holding a hand. Through the repeated explanation of boundaries, coupled with life experience and modelling, children learn how to be safe, as it becomes developmentally appropriate and relevant.
Through the repeated explanation of boundaries, coupled with life experience and modelling, children learn how to be safe, as it becomes developmentally appropriate and relevant.
The risk in depending on explicit learning to teach safety rules is it often does not take into account a child’s development. Parents are left assuming that if they told their child not to do something, they won’t do it because they have “taught” them not to. Then they are disappointed and alarmed when their lesson doesn’t seem to be retained. A lesson needs to be relevant and developmentally appropriate to be retained. Learning is about the meaning making of information. When we are responsive and meet our children’s needs consistently, we become more capable of gauging their current abilities and supporting their unique developmental needs.
A lesson needs to be relevant and developmentally appropriate to be retained. Learning is about the meaning making of information.
This is not a new age concept. My background is in early childhood education and this is how we try to support and facilitate learning. I’m offering a perspective that is standard practice in early childhood education but seems to be all too foreign and misunderstood in the parenting world. If you are so inclined, I ask you to take some time to reflect on this concept. If you prefer to continue with direct teaching, go ahead. It’s your child and your parenting journey. I just share the information I’ve learned, like your children, it’s your choice whether you want to retain it or not.
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Constructivist Theory: http://academic.sun.ac.za/mathed/Malati/Files/Constructivism.pdf
Piaget’s Developmental Stages: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/314437132_Piaget’s_Developmental_Stages
The Teaching Brain and the End of the Empty Vessel: https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/vanessarodriguez/files/vrodriguez_publishedmbe-article_11-16-12.pdf