One of the most debilitating things we do to young people is to assume that there’s nothing going on inside their heads until we liberate them from their emptiness by creating magical experiences, demonstrating indispensable skills, and sharing our profound insights.
We adults are continuously recording our very important playlist – a kind of “Greatest Hits of Human Culture” – straight over our young people’s inner lives and internal tracks.
We’re all in an ongoing process of defining and creating ourselves through how we engage with the world. But self-construction and self-organization happen every bit as much in our mental workshops as they do through our measurable interactions with the environment.
My identity is continuously shaped by the understandings I’m constructing and the way those understandings influence the choices I make in the real world.
But my internal processor, like yours, has a PAUSE button. Almost any concrete responsibility you can name will win an attention wrestling contest with almost any one of my ideas waiting to be fleshed out. Whatever was being concocted in my head comes to a halt when duty calls. A million times a day.
Hitting PAUSE on my self-construction impacts me in different ways on different days.
Sometimes my response is emotionally neutral: it’s just that old familiar feeling I have on returning to a project after an unexpected interruption: “Let’s see. Where was I?”
Other days, I can feel the damage to my spirit. If my train of thought is derailed or overwritten continuously or repeatedly, I begin to feel erased and worn away – uncertain where my center and boundaries are (see self portrait, above).
Sometimes I feel resentment … anxiety … irritation. Other times, to minimize the internal disturbance, I abandon my own agenda and seek ways to feel enthusiastic about serving the ambient culture. I “just go with it” and let people and events define me and manage my choices.
Maria Montessori identified “unsuitable work” and “work interrupted” as the two primary causes of deviation in the psyche of the child.
It’s that kind of hard-to-define and harder-to-measure deviation from healthy development that we’re visiting upon our kids.
All life forms, in order to manage their complex and interrelated systems effectively, must have the opportunity to self-organize. If we want our children to flourish, we must protect this vital psycho-biological function.
Yet most adults, in designing learning environments and creating learning cultures, completely fail to make the space for young people to learn to manage their own self-constructive processes.
With increasing volume and authority, we impose on our children (via an unremitting blanket bomb of compulsorily well-meaning experiences) the elements of human culture that we deem necessary for a good start in life – at school and at home.
In doing that, we scramble their conversations with themselves, jam their internal signals, overwrite their emergent internal programs, and deprive them of the opportunity to practice the vital life skills of instrumentality and agency.
It’s hard to swallow the unalterable fact that we are barred from access to the most profound forms of development that happen in the back rooms of other people’s minds. But the young people we’re raising are doomed to lives of compliance and conformity if we don’t give them space for that.