We Were All Children Once
Solving serious problems as adults may lie with understanding how we solved them as children
“We were all children once. And we all share the desire for the well-being of our children, which has always been and will continue to be the most universally cherished aspiration of humankind.” -Kofi Annan, 7th Secretary-General of the United Nations, 2001
My mother liked to tell a story about me that seemed to pop up in regular conversation all throughout her life, until she passed away in 2012. It went like this: My parents were walking with me through a K-Mart when I was three years old. Another family rounded a corner of the toy section, a little girl about my age holding one hand of each parent between them. I immediately ran over to her and hugged her, pushing her from her parents’ hands. As she cried, my parents had to pry me away from the girl. I had a smile on my face, but when I saw the girl crying I followed suit, suddenly as distraught as I had been happy.
Former teacher and author Vivian Gussin Paley wrote about an experiment she conducted with one of her kindergarten classes in her 1993 book titled You Can’t Say You Can’t Play. It began with a simple rule: Whenever two or more children were playing in a group and another child approached and asked to play with them, the group would no longer be allowed to say “You can’t play with us” or otherwise exclude the new child from joining in.
The experiment was a resounding success. There was less conflict among students, less of the common negative side effects of exclusion such as crying or acting out, and children who simply never spent time together became friends with those who they, in any “normal” classroom, would rarely, if ever, have chosen to associate with.
For months, one of the great horrors of school-age children, classroom bullying, fell by the wayside, nearly forgotten in the wake of a lesson that could only be taught by a teacher who realized children had an innate sense of inclusiveness, a natural inclination toward forming bonds and recognizing sameness before shunning difference.
Very young children, when they are first becoming socialized, become fast friends with other young children, especially in one-on-one situations. There is no judgement, no bias or envy. They simply exist together and interact, finding joy in experiencing the same things.
Two children are equals. Add in a third, and suddenly the balance is off. Now, whenever there is more than one choice, there is a chance that a majority of the group will out-vote the minority. Before, there was never a minority. Everything was 50–50. There could be harmony in both agreeing to either do the same thing together, or going off and playing by themselves. Now, there is opportunity for the majority to exclude or pressure the minority.
Not only that, but as groups increase in size, there is yet another effect. When there are only two children, they may both be extremely different in any number of ways, from race to ability to gender and on and on, but the inherent need of humans to be social creatures counteracts any feelings of “otherness”. When the balance is thrown off, a majority can now form around any of those differences, using any little thing as a seed from which to grow a number of negative social outcomes.
Children learn by watching how the adults in their lives act toward one another. A child is a canvas, and it isn’t solely the broadest brushstrokes of humanity that paints their values. Children pick up on the smallest social and behavioral cues. To a parent, merely pointing out during dinner that someone at work was a “real nerd that didn’t fit in with the team” may seem inconsequential. To a child, however, every word and its intention is like a sculptor’s fingers molding the clay of their mind.
A young child’s prefrontal cortex, which moderates social behavior and personality (among other things), is not yet fully developed. So when words that model behavior and social mores, or witnessed actions as the case may be, are experienced by the child, those things are vastly amplified in importance and contribute to the continual formation of the child’s self.
Once we are done growing, roughly around the time our schooling ends, our adult prefrontal cortices are in a state of “functional fixedness”. Childhood, a time of openness and creativity that is usually unrivaled at any other time in our lives, officially ends. Now, as an adult, when you see a keyboard you just see the “keyboard”. But when you were five, you might see a keyboard as a “boat” and try floating it in your backyard pond (much to the chagrin of your work-at-home dad).
Most of us tend toward less sociability as we age, leading to the common theme of “the elderly hermit”. This is caused by many natural occurrences: we move away from family and early friends, focusing on our own families creates some insularity, and eventually new friends and family also move away and later begin to die. People who actively work to remain social tend to remain healthier longer into their later years, for various reasons both physical and mental.
I wonder what kind of world we would see if we had a Vivian Paley to give us all that one rule to follow? If all of us adults were told “You can’t say ‘you can’t play’”, how would that affect our daily lives?
In most cases this seems untenable. What would such a philosophy even entail in an adult world? Could anyone, anywhere, be allowed to join any organization, no matter their affiliations or qualifications? If I were a pro golfer, would I be welcome to join the steamfitters local 503? There doesn’t seem to be an exact equivalent in the adult realm for the situation that Vivian Paley found a solution for in her kindergarten classroom.
We have a basic idea called “the golden rule”, which can be found in numerous cultures, and is a simple statement that most people seem to agree with but, at the same time, do not practice to the full extent: Don’t do anything to someone else that you wouldn’t want someone else to do to you. Being excluded from a play group as a young child definitely contradicts this rule. Most children, when asked, agree that it wouldn’t be nice (or fun) to be excluded, or be the last kid chosen for a kickball team during gym class, or anything like that.
All we can do, if we want to be good, is try to live in a way that causes as little pain to others as possible. But we must remember that all of this, the pain and the goodness, start when we are children. It begins with the first words a baby hears, its first hug, its first inkling of what compassion and caring mean. We, as adults, are all teachers, exemplars of the values we cherish. And we have a duty to our children to help them grow to become better people than we are.
Please share your own thoughts in the comments below. I look forward to learning something new.
Thank you for reading!