“Self-trust is the first secret of success.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
No one wants to be cajoled, forced, or coerced. Some of us resist mightily. Such resisters are called all sorts of names: underachieving, non-compliant, difficult, withdrawn, eccentric, or worse.
Human beings naturally resist when our autonomy is threatened. And autonomy is most threatened in childhood because many adults (particularly in the western world) believe children require moment-to-moment instruction, advice, and entertainment. Unlike most of previous human history, children’s lives today are heavily monitored and controlled. Adults keep kids in pre-planned activities, insist that education proceed in a linear fashion, intervene to minimize difficulties, and provide distractions to prevent even momentary boredom. They do so assuming these efforts will advance learning and boost success.
Yet this puts character development at risk, because children are attracted to dilemmas that help them learn. Learning from mistakes, taking on challenges, and developing a growth mindset are pivotal for success. So is preservation of a trait found in people at the top of their fields in science, the arts, and entrepreneurship—curiosity. And curiosity arises in unique and unpredictable ways, often appearing after a child has traveled from boredom to inspiration on his or her own.
Coercion also puts the child in an uncomfortable position, because all this control comes from adults with the best intentions. Usually adults who love them. So children, who don’t like overt control any more than you do, typically react somewhere on the spectrum between compliance and resistance. Extreme compliance and they’re less likely to think for themselves, developing an external rather than internal locus of control. Extreme resistance and they’re likely to face ever more punitive efforts to get them to comply. Neither reaction is what adults want or expect.
Which leads me to a story about Transcendentalist writer, Ralph Waldo Emerson. He and his son Edward were trying to get a calf through a barn door. Emerson pushed from behind while his son pulled on the calf’s ear. The heifer wouldn’t move an inch despite a great deal of effort exerted by the two men. Emerson thought back over his scientific and literary readings in hopes of figuring out some way of getting the reluctant animal to move but didn’t come up with any solutions. They continued trying, to the amusement of a servant woman who was passing by. She offered a finger to the calf. Easily led by its desire to suckle, the calf followed her at once.
The wisdom of capitalizing on natural tendencies is the key to good animal husbandry. It’s probably a key to decent human relationships as well. I’m not for a moment suggesting that children are calves. (In fact, I’d rather see calves left with their mothers to suckle than led into a barn by capitalizing on that unmet need.) Children need rules, responsibilities, and the expectation that they’ll treat others with compassion. They need to be nurtured by adults who understand that pushing and pulling aren’t useful ways to help children mature. And they need the freedom to learn in ways that are best for them. At any age, those of us who aren’t oppressed by coercive relationships or controlling institutions gladly seek out advice as we need it, find role models who inspire us, and advance in the direction of our greatest gifts.
“No human right, except the right to life itself, is more fundamental than this. A person’s freedom of learning is part of his freedom of thought, even more basic than his freedom of speech. If we take from someone his right to decide what he will be curious about, we destroy his freedom of thought. We say, in effect, you must think not about what interests and concerns you, but about what interests and concerns us.” John Holt