I hope every parent is knocked off their chair by the astonishing capacity their child exhibits every day. Recall – 700 new neural connections every second and each branch touches 10,000 to 20,000 other branches. Unbelievable! The environment is the teacher. Life, the senses, relationship and now names (times two) is the curriculum.
I placed two chairs by a new gas fire ring on our patio. Carly went to her room and carried out her wooden chair. As she stepped to the patio I asked, “Do you want some help?” “No,” she replied, and placed her chair between the other two. “Nice,” I said. “Yes, nice,” she observed reaching into her bowl and slipping a strawberry in my mouth, giggling. I keep using the words distilling, expanding and sophisticated to describe what is unfolding before my eyes. How can this be? Carly is only 25.5 months young?
There is no question Carly wants to do things herself, and she does. And there is no question we intervene too often, doing things she can do herself. Our gallery is a brisk fifteen minute walk for me, through a hilly park, up and down dirt paths from our home. Triple that for a so called toddler, although I do not consider Carly a toddler. A running explorer is more fitting. The other day she walked to the gallery and back. If she wants a lift she turns in her tracks, blocks my way, and reaches up. That is pretty clear. If the lid on the jar is too tight, “help please” is her request. Or she might say “hard,” or “heavy.” At the park, when engaging a new playmate Carly surprisingly offers to share George. You remember George, the first stuffed character that became real, like the Valentine Rabbit. You may have heard that toddlers are ego-centric and therefore don’t share. Carly challenges this. I did not beg or ask her to slip that strawberry in my mouth. Carly shares spontaneously and often. I think feeling secure helps. The more secure we feel, not in a defensive way but deeply, the more freely we interact with life. Sharing is actually more inviting and fun than hording.
The words ease and dis-ease come to mind. Ease; not easy but fully engaged, free of internal resistance represents growth, learning and expanding capacity. Disease; not necessarily difficult, rather anxiety, insecurity, ambiguity, fear, pain, psychological stress or trauma, present or more often past, means a house divided, stunted growth and, of course, illness. Some years ago physicist David Bohm, the man Einstein considered to be his intellectual successor, described how the ‘state’ of each learning experience, ease or disease, is etched into the neural pattern of that experience – something Joseph Chiton Pearce and I explored in Magical Parent – Magical Child, something we called state specific learning and performance.
Today, listening to an interview with Gabor Maté, MD, the ACE Study (Adverse Childhood Experiences) was mentioned. The study demonstrated an association of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) with health and social problems as adults. The greater the ACE score, meaning the more adverse our childhood experiences, the greater our risk for all sorts of dis-eases as adults; obesity, violence, addictions, learning disabilities, impaired social and interpersonal relationships, trouble with the law and various illnesses including various forms of cancer.
What exactly is an adverse experience? Things we do: words or overt actions that cause harm, potential harm, or threat of harm – physical, sexual and psychological abuse. And the things we don’t do, neglect: failure to meet needs or to protect from harm or potential harm – physical, emotional, medical/dental neglect, educational neglect, inadequate supervision and exposure to violent environments. The more and more often we experience these adverse experiences growing up – the more ‘at risk’ we are as adults.
When we feel safe there is nothing to justify or defend. All of our energy and attention is invested in meeting the world fully this moment and the next. Our attention is not split, one part meeting the challenge and the other part defending. Children call this full and complete engagement – play. Elite athletes call this freedom, psychological safety really, the Zone. Might what sages call enlightenment be a permanent state of authentic play? Isn’t it our responsibility to create living-learning environments where our children take this enlightened state for granted because for them it is simply how life is?
But we can’t give what we don’t have. What goes around – comes around. Jacques Cousteau said it simply; “We protect the things we love.” Adverse childhood experiences are the result of an impaired capacity to love, something we all experience, some sadly more than others.
Perhaps the greatest insight Gabor Maté, MD, awakened was the realization that what we call our personality, our social ego, is a coping strategy to predict and avoid adverse experiences. Coping demands energy and attention that would optimally be invested in learning and growth. For most, this need for a psychological copping strategy becomes a chronic demand. Gabor notes that the attention we invest in our personal coping strategy often masks the underlying stress being coped with. While we and our children occupy ourselves cultivating and perfecting our coping-personality, the underlying, mostly unconscious stress eats away at our immune system or expresses as one addiction or another.
Play is love in action. In the state of authentic play psychological coping doesn’t exist. There are no hungry ghosts to feed, referring to Gabor’s book on addiction In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, which in my view is the best ever written. There is intense energy and attention flowing in a state of ease. Again, by ease I don’t mean easy. Original play for children is often the most challenging activity in their lives.
The environment is the teacher and this applies to the forest and the artificial containers we call classrooms. If you want to understand the often hidden agenda of compulsory schooling, look objectively at the behavior the school and classroom environments demand; conformity, obeying authority, endless rules, having the bell determine the schedule rather than intrinsic interest and passion. The structure itself is Pavlovian, deeply conditioning by design.
Real learning takes place in the state adults call play. But play to most adults is far less important than the conditioning and behavior modification they impose through various attempts to train the child. If an enlightened child is a fully engaged, playful child, and I think a strong case can be made that this is exactly what enlightenment is, it is my responsibility to lead Carly into this enlightened state by being fully engaged and playful myself. Fill childhood with rich and varied, age appropriate play experiences and what sages call enlightenment is not far behind.