I Don’t Believe in Laziness

Guest post by Idzie Desmarais

I don’t think I believe in laziness. In fact, I’m almost certain I don’t.

In my imagination, I hear countless people gasp in shock and horror. What do you mean laziness isn’t a thing? Look around you, there are lazy people everywhere!

What I do believe is that a lot of people have a lot of really lousy ideas about what types of people are lazy and what laziness looks like. In our consumerist, capitalist, and highly competitive society, productivity (here being defined as the participation in monetary work in an economy built on a model of endless growth) is valued above pretty much everything else, and if you’re not either: a. working most of your waking hours for pay or b. in school preparing to be working most of your waking hours for pay, you’re probably just being lazy.

People like to talk about kids being lazy a lot. Lazy because they’re doing badly in school, or playing too much, or not doing their homework, or getting really stressed by school. And common wisdom says that kids are too lazy to do hard things like learning on their own terms, which is a frequent criticism unschoolers get from relatives, strangers, and random people on the internet.

I’d like to argue that whenever people see something they’d label as lazy, it’s really one of these other things they’re seeing instead.

People who are struggling, or even in crisis.

People with disabilities, mental illnesses, and chronic illnesses/chronic pain are very, very familiar with being considered lazy. Lazy because they’re not performing up to the standards of “normal,” healthy people, and if they just tried harder, thought more positively, and pulled themselves up by the bootstraps, they could surely do better. Any children in school, who are learning (or not) in a high stress environment, with regular evaluations, and the threat of failing grades leading to summer school or even having to repeat a grade, are in a difficult enough position as it is. Add in the struggle of a disability or illness of some sort, and you’re expecting the impossible. You’re expecting someone to thrive in an environment and a lifestyle that they’re literally incapable of coping with. Then on top of that, they get called lazy, and blamed for the failings of a system that was not built for them. They get to feel worthless and like a failure, like they should be able to do better, even if they can’t. Though it’s compounded in children with physical or emotional difficulties, the reality that school is the problem not the student holds true for those without any illnesses or disabilities, as well. Schools weren’t built to be a nurturing, flexible environment in tune with how children naturally learn and grow, so it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that a large portion of children struggle in such an institution.

People who feel lost, directionless, and unenthusiastic.

Sometimes, even if someone isn’t struggling in a major way, a way that could actually end up being a diagnosable illness, they’re still not doing so well. Maybe they have trouble getting excited about learning or doing anything much, they’re stressed out and uncertain about what they want to do or how they want to do it. This means they need people to help them figure things out, find some new pursuits, make any necessary changes to their environment, set some goals that feel good to the learner, or otherwise offer a supportive presence and helping hand. What someone who feels lost and uncertain doesn’t need is to be made to feel guilty about those feelings, or told they’re just being lazy.

People who like to daydream, whose learning is more internal and less visible.

In our culture there’s a common idea of what learning is supposed to look like. Children who are learning are supposed to look diligent, hard at work, focused, and possibly like they’re not having too good a time. Everyone learns in ways that don’t look like learning at least some of the time, but especially for some young learners, learning can be a very internal, non-structured process, involving lots of daydreaming and quiet time playing, thinking, and imagining. This isn’t laziness, just learning in ways that schools don’t tend to value.

People who learn in more energetic, kinesthetic ways, through play and exploration. 

This very much overlaps with the above. This is yet another learning preference that is largely ignored in school, to great detriment for many active, enthusiastic kids. There’s also a tendency for adults to think that kids who are just running around playing all the time are having way too much fun to actually be learning. This, of course, is not at all true, and luckily there’s more and more research showing the importance of play for children AND adults.

People with a sense of entitlement.

I’m leery about the word entitlement, simply because it’s so often lobbed at people in the same way lazy is, and for the same reasons. I don’t think it’s entitled to expect respectful treatment; access to food, water, healthcare and shelter; experiences that bring you joy; support when you’re having trouble; and a place in the world. Those are human rights, not something entitled millennials or children or name-the-group are unreasonably demanding. However, I do think a sense of entitlement exists, in people who believe that they’re more deserving of good things than others, who believe that by virtue of their birth or wealth or other attributes they’re better than others, or that they don’t have a duty to be generally polite and kind to those around them. Basically, there are people who don’t ever go out of their way to do anything for other people, and that’s really entitlement right there. But don’t call it laziness. Name it for what it is: a sense of superiority and lack of caring for others.

People who call themselves lazy.

Sometimes (okay, for many of us, often) we really want to do something, and yet we don’t start doing it. We start something, and then avoid doing it for weeks. We procrastinate endlessly. Then that little voice starts in our heads, “I guess I’m just lazy.” Well, I don’t think you are. I don’t think I am. I think it’s more likely either one of the above (struggles either big or small, a favoured learning style that doesn’t look productive), or perhaps most often fear. Fear of failure, fear you’re not smart enough or good enough to be doing what you want to do, fear of ridicule or criticism. Laziness might not exist, but fear most definitely does.

I also find myself wanting to ask, is “doing nothing” really so bad? Must we constantly be engaging in something productive? Why can’t we just relax, without having to justify whatever we’re doing to either ourselves or others? Something doesn’t have to be a “learning experience” to be worthwhile. Once we move past some puritanical (or maybe more capitalistic) mindset of having to be constantly engaged in something appropriately useful, we can really work on embracing all life has to offer, whether it’s useful to the economy or not. I don’t want to dissect the episode of Veronica Mars I just watched for any learning potential, I just want to enjoy it, and enjoy the discussions with my sister it sparks on the characters and plot and what we think might happen next…

Learning is always happening, whether we’re noticing it or not. But more importantly, just living, just existing and enjoying and working and playing and yes, learning, is enough. We don’t have to justify our very existence by being productive. Just being is good enough.

This is why I always wince when I hear the word lazy passing anyone’s lips. It’s demeaning, it further hurts children who are already struggling, makes people feel guilty and worthless, and just creates a horrible environment to live in, never mind for positive learning and growth. Learning happens best when people feel supported and challenged, not when they feel stressed and insecure, with people watching them in disapproval and muttering about laziness. If adults really care about learning, then they need to work on being more supportive and less critical, and erase the word lazy from their vocabulary, and the false concept of laziness from their minds.

Then we can all more easily get down to the joyful business of life learning.


Idzie Desmarais writes the popular blog I’m Unschooled. Yes, I Can Write where she focuses on unschooling, freedom-based education, and related subjects such as respectful parenting and youth rights. Keep up with her on FacebookTwitter, and Tumblr.  Thanks for sharing this post Idzie! 


Are You An Anthropocentrist?


animal intelligence, anthropocentrism,

Paradise, by Gillis d’Hondecoeter circa 1575

When I was growing up we were taught humans were at the top of every chart, far superior to all other living beings. Our textbooks, illustrated with stereotypical images of “cave men,” proved the assertion with a long list of what our species could do that others could not. The list was so smug that I was a bit embarrassed on behalf of my fellow homo sapiens. A skeptic even then, I thought the list was somewhat prejudicial. Worse, it didn’t acknowledge what feels obvious to young children, that we are all things and all things are us.

I don’t for a moment dismiss our many human accomplishments—among them language, science, the arts, and shared rules meant to advance mutual compassion. I simply mean to point out that we’re not better, we’re different.

Besides, what I was taught as a kid doesn’t really hold up. Here are some reasons why.

Tool use was a biggie on that list. It’s true, animals haven’t developed the smart phone (thus are spared walking into traffic while texting) but they naturally incorporate tool use when it makes sense for them.

  1. Crows make tools like hooks and rakes out of twigs, leaves, even their own feathers to obtain items just out of reach and can use three tools in sequence.  They also will drop pebbles into a container in order to raise the level of water, understanding cause and effect as well as a seven to 10-year-old child. Other examples of tool use by crows? They’re known to drop nuts on a roadway so cars will crack the shells, then wait for a break in traffic to retrieve the nutmeat. Interestingly, they’re more proficient when they grow up watching adult crows fashion tools. (Crows might wonder why we segregate human kids away from the interesting work-a-day world of adults.)
  2. Naked mole rats dig with their teeth, but to keep from inhaling dust and dirt they’re known to position wood shavings in their mouths as rudimentary face masks.
  3. The octopus is more closely related to clams than to people, yet these invertebrates plan ahead, tool-wise. For example they’ve been seen carrying coconut shell halves they can hide under later in order to grab unsuspecting prey as it passes.
  4. Orangutans fold leaves into a usable “musical instrument” that modifies their calls, making them sound lower and therefore more threatening to large predators.

Math was another obvious difference. We were taught that numerical sense is evidence of higher order thinking. Yet the animal kingdom uses math when necessary.

  1. Bears can count. Although they don’t benefit from the intelligence-boosting effect of living in social groups, research shows bears can estimate quantities just as well as primates. One particular study taught bears to discriminate between dots on a touchscreen computer, a situation about as far removed from relevant bear smarts as possible. Their abilities in natural habitat are likely to be far more impressive.
  2. Elephants have substantial numerical skills, outperforming primates and even human children when tested for their ability to find the difference between two quantities. A study found elephants can discriminate between one and two as well as between larger numbers.
  3. Baby chicks can not only count, they can even can add up numbers based on groups of objects they can’t see at the moment.  And that’s when they’re a few days old!  By two weeks of age, chickens can take into account the sun’s height and position to navigate. Plus they’re able to draw inferences and plan ahead, for example choosing to delay gratification in order to reap a greater reward. And who’d have guessed, but chickens prefer to count from left to right.
  4. Pigeons are able to learn abstract rules about numbers and order pairs. Aside from humans, only rhesus monkeys have been able to perform at this level.
  5. Insects also use math. Honeybees can distinguish between and remember quantities up to four. They can also match patterns. Ants operate with a collective form of intelligence, able to use complex problem-solving strategies to optimize time and energy spent feeding the colony.

People, we were told, communicate in complex ways while animals are, well, just animals. Again, not true.

  1. Elephants communicate sophisticated ideas in a variety of ways including low-frequency sounds from 1 and 20 Hz that can travel over miles. So far, researchers have identified nearly 200 expressions and gestures, along with nearly 100 vocalizations. Elephants can recognize at least 100 other unseen elephants by voice alone.  Their remarkable ability to understand communication isn’t limited to their own species. African elephants can differentiate between languages, gender, and age of human speakers.
  2. Dolphins remember one another, without contact, for at least 20 years. In fact, researchers have found that dolphins call each other by name (in this case, distinctive signature whistles).
  3. Koko, a western lowland gorilla, has been taught American Sign Language and, according to her trainer, understands about 1,000 signs along with nearly 2,000 words of spoken English. Sometimes, when there’s not a relevant sign, Koko invents her own signs. For example, she “compounded the sign for scratch with the sign for comb to mean, “brush” (scratch-comb).”
  4. Alex, an African gray parrot, learned well over 100 words that he used appropriately in unique contexts, demonstrating the intelligence of a five year old human child. He died suddenly in 2007. The last thing he said to his trainer upon going to his cage for the night was, “You be good, see you tomorrow. I love you.”

Which brings us to emotion and personality. Yup, non-human types are brimming with it.

  1. Chimps not only create social traditions, they’re interested in what’s trendy. Researchers are just now catching on (academic types are not known for fashion forwardness) to the latest thing, chimps wearing grass in their ears.
  2. Stressed-out honeybees show an increased expectation of bad outcomes. In other words, they become pessimists. The bees also showed altered levels of neurochemicals associated with depression. Other invertebrates, such as crayfish, can exhibit anxiety and respond well to medications that relieve anxiety in humans.
  3. Dogs traumatized by military service or abuse exhibit signs of canine Post Traumatic Stress Disorder 
  4. Rats feel regret after making poor choices.
  5. Crows will eat nearly anything, but prefer French fries from a McDonalds bag to the same fries in a plain brown sack. They not only hold grudges against specific humans who have done them wrong, but will teach other crows to react badly upon seeing them as well.
  6. And play? There’s plenty of it. Crows like to ski down icy rooftops and snow-covered slopes holding sticks or boards in their talons. River otters, elephants, and whales are known for playful behavior.


Let me push it one step farther, to compassion and even spirituality. We’ve been told that only humans have evolved beyond survival-based selfishness to establish ethics and morality. We’ve been taught we’re the only species to perform rituals as we mourn the passing of our departed, the only ones to meditate in silence, the only ones to experience a sense of awe akin to reverence. Apparently not true either.

  1. Altruism? There’s plenty of evidence. A dolphin saving a beached whale and its calf. Gorillas working together to dismantle dangerous poachers’ traps. A pod of sperm whales adopting a disabled dolphin. Rats gnawing through cages to help other imprisoned rats. A bear assisting an injured crowLions chasing away an Ethiopian child’s kidnappers and guarding her until human help arrived.
  2. How about awe? Chimps are known to ritualistically dance at the advent of thunderstorms and dance at waterfalls. They’ve also been observed dancing (rather than fleeing instinctively) in the face of wild grass fires.
  3. Meditation? Baboons have been observed performing a sangha, sitting in silence for over a half hour gazing at a stream of water, even the juveniles remaining quiet.
  4. Love? Probably yes according to research with cats and dogs who seem to be tapping into fields beyond our conscious awareness to know when their owners are coming home.
  5. Funerals, those too. Elephants weep in sorrow and grieve their dead. They’ve also been known to sense the death of humans important to them, even from great distances, as two tribes of African elephants did when they walked for hours to mourn at the home of a conservationist who’d once rescued them. Ritualized behavior to mourn death is common in animals including foxes,  magpieswolves, dolphins, and gorillas.
  6. Maybe even religion. Cetologist Hal Whitehead‘s research indicates that sperm whales not only transmit culture to their young, they may have have evolved a form of religion to make sense of their purpose.


Even these terribly incomplete examples have probably taxed your patience although there are thousands of other fascinating proofs out there. Let’s remember, all these observations are human-centric, further evidence that we judge animals against one species—-us.

We wouldn’t have particularly good scores if tested according to the abilities of our fellow creatures. It’s not as if we can age in reverse as a jellyfish named Turritopsis dohrnii does, possess a snake’s infrared vision able to assess the difference in temperature between moving prey and surrounding area on the scale of milliKelvins, emit a protein that neutralizes nearly every poison as an opossum does, regrow limbs and organs as the salamander can, or are able to hear as well as the wax moth Galleria mellonella which is capable of detecting frequencies of up to 300kHz, (we humans at best hear to about 20kHz).

According to evolutionary biologists, we humans aren’t better than animals, just different. Researchers in fields like comparative psychology and language study, say there’s an “emerging consensus among scientists that animals share functional parallels with humans’ conscious metacognition — that is, our ability to reflect on our own mental processes and guide and optimize them.”

As naturalist Henry Beston wrote in The Outermost House,

We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate for having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein do we err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.


animal capacities, Eden,

“Paradijs met dieren” by Jan Brueghel the Elder, 1620

Understanding Children Through Imitation

follow your child's example, what it feels like to be a child, child's experience,

Mirror a child’s movements. (morguefile)

So much of a child’s experience, from infancy on, is constantly being shaped by adults. Their behavior, posture, movement, and sound are restricted by structured activities, confining seats, and grown-up expectations . If we allow ourselves, we can drop into a child’s world for few moments by replicating his or her movements. It’s a form of listening at the bodily level that can be instructive as well as enlightening.

I’ve admitted to trying this the very first time as a new mother, imitating my newborn’s movements in an experience so profound it felt like a ceremony.

I didn’t try it again until I was the mother of three kids under six. I’d dashed over to a friend’s house to drop something off, feeling rushed to get back to my nursing baby. My friend’s children were asleep. I stood in her quiet kitchen telling her how much I wanted to sit down and chat, but couldn’t spare the time. She answered my complaint with mock outrage, “Don’t you dare relax! What were you thinking?”

In my best imitation toddler voice I said, “WANT TO!”

She wagged her finger. “That’s enough out of you. Do what you’re told right this minute.”

Then I dropped to the floor in a full-on act of defiance; lying on my back, kicking my legs, and squalling, “You can’t maaaaaake me!”

By this time our hilarity was well out of proportion to this brief moment of improv. When I got up I felt different—wonderfully de-stressed and energized.

I insisted my friend give it a try. She resisted, until I admonished her with the same phrases I’d heard her use on her kids. I even flung out her full name accompanied by finger wagging. That did it. She twirled around whining “Noooooo. No no no!” till she was out of breath, with hair in her mouth and a smile on her face.

We both agreed we felt incredible.

I don’t for a minute suggest you do this, ever, in front of any child. Self-expression should never be ridiculed. But if they’re not home, give it a try. What this did, for me as well as my friend, was let us fully express strong emotions through our bodies as our children do, as we used to do when we were children. We may have been well-educated, reasonably sophisticated women but the need to indulge in some primal venting hadn’t left us. A little method acting gave us both new insight into what our children experience.

After that, I looked for ways to learn from my children through imitation. We adults do this all the time when we play with our kids. We chase and let them chase us. When they pretend to be an animal or make-believe character we join in. We’re the big bad wolf blowing down a child’s fort made of cushions. We’re the sotto-voiced doll talking to another doll or the train engine struggling up an imaginary hill. Playing is a window into a child’s experience, and remarkably restorative for us as well.

But what truly let me honor my children’s world was letting them choreograph my movements. Sometimes we’d play what we called “mirror”— standard actor training done face to face. The child is the leader, the parent the “mirror.” As the child makes gestures, facial expressions, and hand movements the parent tries to duplicate the movements exactly. Then we ‘d switch so the child got a turn being the mirror. I always ended up laughing first.

Sometimes we played a variant of this, making each other into emotion mirrors. One would call out a feeling like “surprised” or “angry” or “wild” and the other would try to convey the word through facial expression. (This is also a great way to advance emotional intelligence.)

My favorite imitation was through dance. We’d turn on some lively music and I’d try to copy my child’s dance moves. This is much more difficult than it sounds. It’s nearly impossible to keep up with a child’s energy level for long!

My kids are past the stage where they want me to imitate their dance moves. But I haven’t forgotten how much letting my kids choreograph my movements taught me. Even now, they’ll catch my eye across a crowded room for a brief moment of mirroring. It’s funny, warm, and lets us both feel understood.

Don’t miss this wonderfully expressive choreography by Zaya, imitated by real dancers.

“It is good to love many things” ~Vincent Van Gogh

Sunflowers, by Vincent van Gogh

“It is good to love many things, for therein lies the true strength, and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love, is well done.”

L’Arlésienne, L’Arlésienne, by Vincent van Gogh

L’Arlésienne, L’Arlésienne, by Vincent van Gogh

“Poetry surrounds us everywhere, but putting it on paper is, alas, not so easy as looking at it.”

child 2

Memory of the Garden at Etten (Ladies of Arles), by Vincent van Gogh

“Even as a boy I would often look up with infinite sympathy, indeed with respect, at a woman’s face past its prime, inscribed as it were with the words: here life and reality have left their mark.”

Self-portrait in front of easel, by Vincent van Gogh

“If you hear a voice within you say you cannot paint, then by all means paint and that voice will be silenced.”

The Sower, by Vincent van Gogh

The Sower, by Vincent van Gogh

“Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.”

child 2

“Normality is a paved road: It’s comfortable to walk, but no flowers grow on it.”

The Church in Auvers-sur-Oise, View from the Chevet by Vincent van Gogh

“That God of the clergymen, He is for me as dead as a doornail. But am I an atheist for all that? The clergymen consider me as such — be it so; but I love, and how could I feel love if I did not live, and if others did not live, and then, if we live, there is something mysterious in that. Now call that God, or human nature, or whatever you like, but there is something which I cannot define systematically though it is very much alive and very real, and see, that is God, or as good as God. To believe in God for me is to feel that there is a God, not a dead one, or a stuffed one, but a living one, who with irresistible force urges us toward aimer encore; that is my opinion.”

“I cannot help thinking that the best way of knowing God is to love many things. Love this friend, this person, this thing, whatever you like, and you will be on the right road to understanding Him better, that is what I keep telling myself. But you must love with a sublime, genuine, profound sympathy, with devotion, with intelligence, and you must try all the time to understand Him more, better and yet more.”

Bedroom in Arles, by Vincent van Gogh

“I dream my painting, and then I paint my dream.”

“I am always doing what I cannot do yet, in order to learn how to do it.”

Portrait of Père Tanguy, by Vincent van Gogh

“It is with the reading of books the same as with looking at pictures; one must, without doubt, without hesitations, with assurance, admire what is beautiful.”

“If only we try to live sincerely, it will go well with us, even though we are certain to experience real sorrow, and great disappointments, and also will probably commit great faults and do wrong things, but it certainly is true, that it is better to be high-spirited, even though one makes more mistakes, than to be narrow-minded and all too prudent.”

Sorrowing Old Man (At Eternity’s Gate), by Vincent van Gogh

“Well, right now it seems that things are going very badly for me, have been doing so for some considerable time, and may continue to do so well into the future. But it is possible that everything will get better after it has all seemed to go wrong. I am not counting on it, it may never happen, but if there should be a change for the better I should regard that as a gain, I should rejoice, I should say, at last! So there was something after all! “

Prisoners’ Round, by Vincent van Gogh

“People are often unable to do anything, imprisoned as they are in I don’t know what kind of terrible, terrible, oh such terrible cage.I do know that there is a release, the belated release. A justly or unjustly ruined reputation, poverty, disastrous circumstances, misfortune, they all turn you into a prisoner. You cannot always tell what keeps you confined, what immures you, what seems to bury you, and yet you can feel those elusive bars, railings, walls.

Is all this illusion, imagination? I don’t think so. And then one asks: My God! will it be for long, will it be for ever, will it be for eternity? 

Do you know what makes the prison disappear? Every deep, genuine affection. Being friends, being brothers, loving, that is what opens the prison, with supreme power, by some magic force. Without these one stays dead. But whenever affection is revived, there life revives.” 

A Pair of Shoes, by Vincent van Gogh

A Pair of Shoes, by Vincent van Gogh

“What preys on my mind is simply this one question: what am I good for, could I not be of service or use in some way, how can I become more knowledgeable and study some subject or other in depth?

The Potato Eaters, by Vincent van Gogh

The Potato Eaters, by Vincent van Gogh

“One must not be afraid of going wrong, one must not be afraid of making mistakes now and then. Many people think that they will become good just by doing no harm — but that’s a lie, and you yourself used to call it that. That way lies stagnation, mediocrity.”

Starry night over the Rhone, by Vincent van Gogh

“Be clearly aware of the stars and infinity on high. Then life seems almost enchanted after all.”

Starry Night, by Vincent van Gogh

Starry Night, by Vincent van Gogh

“When I have a terrible need of — shall I say the word — religion. Then I go out and paint the stars.”

First Steps, by Vincent van Gogh

First Steps, by Vincent van Gogh

“Love is eternal — the aspect may change, but not the essence. There is the same difference in a person before and after he is in love as there is in an unlighted lamp and one that is burning. The lamp was there and was a good lamp, but now it is shedding light too, and that is its real function.”

The Man is at Sea (after Demont-Breton), by Vincent van Gogh

“The more I think it over, the more I feel that there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people.”

Self-portrait with straw hat, by Vincent van Gogh

Self-portrait with straw hat, by Vincent van Gogh

Response to Kids’ Misbehavior: “Good Old Days” vs. Now

older generation of kids, historical comparison of children,

Learning from earlier generations. (CC by 2.0 SimpleInsomnia)

Unable to find a job in my field after college, I ended up working as a nursing home activity director. It was the best job in the place. Unlike overworked staff in other departments, I had time to form real relationships with the residents. This was 25-some years ago (yes, I’m that old). Our 100 bed unit was brimming with people too frail to care for themselves but most were otherwise mentally acute. (Not one patient with today’s unnecessary plague, Alzheimer’s disease.)

These elders were in their 80’s and 90’s, born around the 1900’s or slightly before, and always happily reminisced with someone willing to listen. They were extraordinary teachers and gave me perspectives I could have encountered nowhere else. One angle new to me was how differently childhood was viewed by adults back when they were growing up.

Kids worked hard then. They were expected to do heavy chores at home as well as work on the family farm or family business. Some even held jobs in factories. But when their obligations were over they were entirely free. They roamed the streets or woods with their peers, improvised games, put on their own skits and plays, made playthings like twig whistles and soapbox cars, built forts, swung from vines into swimming holes, and indulged in make-believe well into their early teens. They skirted around the adult world in a realm of their own, as children have done throughout human history.

criminalizing children, school-to-prison pipeline,

Costumed kids, skit to come. (image: Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries)

I’m not implying that childhood was remotely easy back then. Aside from hard work there seemed to be very little recognition of a child’s emotional needs. Worse, it was a time of blatant racial, gender, ethnic, and class discrimination. But I’d like to point out that when these elders were kids back in 1910’s and 1920’s many of them caused real trouble. Here are a few of the more extreme stories they told me.

Halloween was a holiday with no real adult involvement or interest. That night kids of all ages went out trick-or-treating, knowing they weren’t likely to get a treat (cookie or apple) from most neighbors. Preteens or teens often played tricks to retaliate. Soaping windows was the mildest trick they described. Most were much worse. Wooden steps were pulled away from doors, gravestones left in yards, pigs let out of pens, fires set in dry cornfields ready for harvest, water pumped into basements. One man told me he and his friends put an elderly widow’s buggy on top of her back porch roof. It wasn’t till a few days later that her plight was noticed and someone strong enough to help could get it down. A common Halloween prank was lifting an outhouse a foot or so to the side. In the dark, an unsuspecting person heading out to use it was likely to fall into the hole.

A 14-year-old stole whiskey from a bootlegger and got shot at as he ran off. Another bootlegger was blamed and never seen again.

A 15-year-old took her older sister’s papers booking passage on a ship to the U.S., saying her sister could better look after their family back home. Once she arrived, she worked as a cook for a family that paid for the ticket, answered to her sisters name, married under that name, and gained citizenship under that name. Her sister used the same name back in Ireland all that time.

There were plenty of other stories. Public drunkenness, fist fights that turned into brawls, runaways who rode the rails and runaways who got married against their parents’ wishes, shoplifting, breaking into school offices to change grades and steal tests, and one story of a school riot over a change in dismissal time.

These people suffered no appreciable consequences from authorities.

Not. One. Of. Them.

Their parents were certainly angry if they found out. The usual punishment? More chores. If police were informed they gave the kids a talking to, in the most extreme cases put them in the back of a squad car for a more serious talking to at the police station. No charges. No jail time. No record of their misdeeds beyond a local cop’s memory. Back then, it was assumed that kids would grow out of it.

All of these people grew up to work stable jobs and own homes. Most were married until death parted them from their spouses. One was a judge, one a career military officer, several were in the skilled trades, several others were business owners, many were homemakers and tireless volunteers, nearly all were proud parents of highly accomplished children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

Yet today’s kids are being criminalized.

I’m not for a moment defending any young person’s impulse to wreak mayhem at home or in the community. I am saying that today’s response to (far less drastic) behaviors common during any child’s growing up years is appalling.

These days armed officers roam schools in thousands of districts. Studies show their presence doesn’t actually improve safety. Instead, children are often treated like criminals for common disciplinary issues such as yelling, swearing, or pushing. Here are a few of the more extreme examples.

A seventeen-year-old girl spent 24 hours in jail for truancy. This honors student works two jobs to help support her family and can’t always get to school.

A six-year old boy and avid Cub Scout was suspended for five days after bringing to school his Cub Scout eating utensil containing a fork, spoon, and knife. Due to public pressure, the school board voted to spare him the other punishment he’d received: 45 days in reform school.

A thirteen-year-old boy was handcuffed, arrested, and transported from school to a Juvenile Detention Center although his parents weren’t notified. His crime? He “burped audibly” in gym class.

A twelve-year-old girl was arrested for doodling on a desk with a green marker.

A seventeen-year-old boy who broke up a fight between two girls was shot with a taser by a deputy on duty at the school. The young man suffered a brain hemorrhage, spent 67 days in intensive care, and remains brain injured. The officer wasn’t charged due to lack of evidence.

The Guardian interviewed Deborah Fowler, who authored a 200-page study of the consequences of policing in Texas schools. They report,

…most schools do not face any serious threat of violence and police officers patrolling the corridors and canteens are largely confronted with little more than boisterous or disrespectful childhood behavior.

What we see often is a real overreaction to behavior that others would generally think of as just childish misbehavior rather than law breaking,” said Fowler. Tickets are most frequently issued by school police for “disruption of class,” which can mean causing problems during lessons but is also defined as disruptive behavior within 500 ft of school property such as shouting, which is classified as “making an unreasonable noise.”

Minority students are much more likely to be disciplined, fined, or arrested than white students in what’s being called the school-to-prison pipeline. Huge corporations like Corrections Corporation of America and smaller companies like AIM Truancy Solutions lobby for get-tough policies that bring them big profits in tax-payer money.

In some states tickets are issued, even in primary grades. These citations may compel the student to appear in court to face sentences including fines, court costs, and mandatory participation in remedial programs. This means the child is now entered into the judicial system, with police or court records that may or may not be sealed. If students don’t appear or their families can’t afford the fines, an arrest warrant may automatically be issued when they turn 17. This means childish misbehavior can follow young people into their adult lives. There’s a common question on applications for college, the military, and employment “Have you ever been charged with a crime?”  The answer, for these kids, is “yes.”

Heavy-handed tactics used against children may get worse very soon. School districts in 22 states including Texas, California, Florida, Kansas, and Utah are participating in a federal program which provides military surplus to local law enforcement organizations. We’re talking gear like assault rifles, extended magazines, military vehicles, and other weapons intended for combat.

What happened to free range childhood? Why do we act as if every choice a child makes must be the correct one? That risks are always too risky? That freedom of any kind equals danger?

The goal of creating high-achieving young people through unremitting scrutiny, at times backed up by force, is wrong. But today’s treatment of young people isn’t even based on evidence. Ask any high-achieving adult about their youthful high jinks. Better yet, ask the oldest people still left to us. A long look back may be the cure we need.

“We live in a decaying age. Young people no longer respect their parents. They are rude and impatient. They frequently inhabit taverns and have no self-control.”  inscription in an Ancient Egyptian tomb

“I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless… When I was young we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly unwise and impatient.”   -Hesiod, 8th century BC 

“The world is passing through troublous times. The young people of today think of nothing but themselves. They have no reverence for parents or old age. They are impatient of all restraint. They talk as if they knew everything and what passes for wisdom with us is foolishness with them. As for the girls, they are forward, immodest, and unladylike in speech, behavior, and dress.”   -Peter the Hermit, sermon preached 1274 AD

what your great-grandparents did, oral history,

What our elders can tell us. (CC by 2.0 SimpleInsomnia)

Angry Stranger’s Gift

angry stranger, gift of impatience, tolerance, soul moment,

Years ago I waited in a convenience store line in complete desperation. I was still bleeding after giving birth to my daughter and needed pads. The customer ahead of me was working her way into a snit because the store was out of an item she wanted. She refused to buy similar products the clerk offered. I stood behind this customer trying to keep from judging her (and failing). She was middle-aged or older, wearing expensive clothes and fussily styled hair, but what really defined her was the kind of self-absorption that turns a minor inconvenience into a personal offense. She demanded someone check the back room where she was sure the product languished due to employee laziness. She demanded to see the manager, who wasn’t there. She. Wouldn’t. Leave.

I was so exhausted that I simply wanted to curl up on the floor. It was the first time I’d left my baby’s hospital bed for more than a few minutes. My newborn suffered from a serious malady that hadn’t yet been diagnosed. She was increasingly losing weight and vigor. All the while I missed my three-year-old fiercely. I hadn’t seen him for days aside from brief hugs in the parking lot. I spent all my time by my baby’s side. It was a triumph when I could get her to nurse for a few moments. Sleep deprived and terrified for my baby girl, I clung onto hope like a parasite.

The customer ahead of me was now yelling. I assumed she’d had no greater trouble in her life than being deprived of a convenience store product. I realized that she may have been older than my own mother, but she had less maturity than my firstborn who knew enough to respect other people and more importantly, to care about them.

I’d been in the hospital environment for so many days that simply driving to the store was a sensory overload. Bright sunlight, traffic, people engaged in daily activities were all so overwhelming that I felt like a tourist visiting for the first time. Maybe that’s why I felt a sudden tenderness for the customer ahead of me. It was as if some surface reality melted away to expose this woman’s beautiful soul. I didn’t know if she was going through a difficulty that left her frantic to have her needs, any needs, recognized. Or if she had experienced so few difficulties that she hadn’t developed any tolerance for disappointment. It didn’t matter. I saw her as utterly perfect. In that moment I felt nothing less than love.

Just then she whirled around and left. I exchanged a look of solidarity with the clerk, made my purchase, and drove back to the hospital. That encounter not only gave me a powerful surge of energy, it also boosted my spirits in a way I can’t explain. It was a boost that lasted. All these years later I remain grateful.

Does Your Name Make Life Better?

name prejudice, baby names for success, racial profiling names, anagrams,

Image CC by 2.0 kaatjevervoort

When I was in the fourth grade, my teacher often assigned a game. We were challenged to make as many different words as we could using the letters found in a word or phrase. Around President’s Day we’d have to use “George Washington.” When studying botany, we were given “photosynthesis,” and so on. Each time, my classmates groaned. I loved it. As the teacher wrote our contributions on the board I’d stay quiet until everyone else ran out of ideas. Then, even though it defined me as a word nerd, I raised my hand to add a few more (or ten more).

A few months into the school year the teacher came up with the idea of using a student’s name on his or her birthday. It was an awful idea. Anatomy and body function words popped up easily using names like Samantha, Christopher, and Stephanie. Some of those names, silly or gross, stuck on the playground too.

Names are so personal that we actually prefer the individual letters in our names. It’s called the name-letter effect. Research shows when asked to pick several favorite letters from the alphabet, people invariably pick letters found in their names. They also prefer brands that start with the same letters as their initials. This has a far-reaching effect. Studies show that people are disproportionately likely to work in careers matching their name initials or that sound like their names. They’re also more likely to live in a city with a name similar to their own first or last name.

Names have an impact on how others perceive us. For example, names expose us to racial profiling. In a study titled, “Are Emily and Brendan More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?” it was shown that job applicants with white-sounding names were 50 percent more likely to get an interview than those with names perceived as African-American. The best resumes offered little help. Applicants with high quality resumes and white-sounding names got 30 percent more interview callbacks than those with lower-quality resumes. But for applicants with African-American names, the same credentials bump only gave them a nine percent boost over lower quality resumes.

Racial profiling may have spread to Google, perhaps reflecting bias in society. A study of advertisements appearing on Google in relation to name searches showed certain names were 25 percent more likely to return results advertising criminal record sites. For example, searching for a news story about a school athlete with a name commonly perceived as African-American was much more likely to appear with results displaying ads with the child’s first name and the word “Arrested?”—Yes, really.

Unusual names are certainly popular with celebrities. Witness Jamie Oliver’s kids: Petal Blossom Rainbow, Daisy Boo Pamela, Poppy Honey Rose, and Buddy Bear Maurice. Or, David Duchovny and Tea Leoni’s son, Kyd. Or, Ashlee Simpson’s son, Bronx Mowgli. Or, Nicolas Cage’s son, Kal-El. You know I could go on. High status may easily make up for an unusual name, although in general, oddly spelled or atypical names tend to cause problems. That means you, parents who call your babies Siri, Mac, and other technology names. 

According to Freakonomics, first names gradually move down in social class. Upper classes adopt newer names initially (according to the book, the wealthy launched names like Amber, Brittany, and Crystal). Once those names enter common usage, the upper classes shift their preferences to other first names. But overall, the wealthy are very conservative about name choices, particularly avoiding odd or creatively spelled names. (Check out name popularity over time in the U.S. using BabyNameWizard or the Social Security site.)

And a new study determined that people with easy-to-pronounce names are judged more positively. They’re more likely to get special treatment from teachers and employers. This means better grades, easier hires, and faster job promotions.

It’s not just the name itself, it’s where the name falls in the alphabet. Economists looked to find a relationship between last names and academic prominence. They discovered people with surnames close to the beginning of the alphabet were much more likely to have upper level positions, even more likely to win a Nobel Prize. This may have something to do with the way names are listed on many academic papers: alphabetically. Attention may fall disproportionately on the first name or two rather than equally on all co-authors. People with names earliest in the alphabet may also be accustomed to being first in line at school and first to be called for job interviews. It was noted that, of the 15,000 people in the study, the farther down in the alphabet their surname appeared the less likely they were to be successful.

It might be easy to blame a few of my career disappointments on the alphabetical position of my surname, down at the bottom with the W’s. But as the studies predict, I’m actually quite fond of  ”W” and “L.” Also, perhaps because my name is rich in vowels, I happen to adore them. I see vowels as letters brimming with potential. (That doesn’t stop me from an ongoing practice of making up a name when asked to leave a name for a restaurant reservation.)

Maybe that’s why I also get a kick out of anagrams. They remind me of those long-ago classroom exercises. Do you want to see how many words can be made out of your full name? Maybe read some deeper meaning into them? Try the Internet Anagram Server. And tell us the strangest results in the comments. It’s like yelling strange names on the playground, only this time we’re laughing together.

name prejudice, racial profiling names, name stereotypes, baby names for success,

Image: CC by 2.0 Alan O’Rourke

For A Fresher & Juicier Experience, Mix It Up!

This doesn’t bode well. I’ve been talked into a day-long workshop and I don’t know where to go.

There are two large conference rooms at the Cleveland Marriott. Their doors open across the hall from each other. There are also two different groups convening today, but someone has neglected to post signs at either one.

Now, to figure out which group is mine.

On one side waiters roll in carts of muffins, fresh fruit, and coffee. A tray of bright red strawberries passes tantalizingly close to me. I long to taste just one from the tray, but show uncharacteristic restraint due to the press of people entering that conference. Through those doors walk people who are impeccably dressed. Not only suits on the men but shined shoes, not only dresses on the women but elaborate hats. The attendees are all African-American.  I spy a few Bibles.  Seems to be an evangelical gathering of some sort.

On the other side there’s a lone table with water pitchers and glasses.  Folks are moseying in slowly. Their clothing is more diverse than their skin tone.  I spot Indonesian, African, and Japanese prints.  In front of me a man with long gray hair in a pony tail is saying something to a companion about “passing through a portal of enhanced energy.” I assume he is making an ironic comment about walking through such a blandly generic doorway, but he goes on to remark that this was the name of a workshop he’d attended in Phoenix recently.  Yup, this is my side of the hallway.

I find the friends who invited me and silently promise myself to sit still. (I’m not much for staying put.) Music starts, we sing, and I’m ready to have my consciousness raised.

I’ll give her this, the speaker is interesting.  She sets off my “Oh sheesh” meter a few times thanks to her quasi-scientific quantum physics references, but I already agree with what she’s saying. Each of us can be light workers who spread hope, and ultimately greater peace, through our daily words and actions.  We participate in group meditations, activating ourselves to take on greater responsibilities for uplifting others.  While not new, her message is certainly valuable.

But all that time we’re stuck in a meeting room. I don’t know how anyone can sit that long. I tend to wiggle and my mind wanders when my body is uncomfortable. I wonder how our brethren across the way are faring. When the fidgets get the best of me I excuse myself for a hallway ramble. I notice through open doors on the other side of the hall that those participants are also chair-bound, staring straight ahead with the glazed look that comes from hours of immobility.  Likely we are gathered in both conferences for similar purposes—-to enliven our spiritual lives and bring greater harmony to our bit of the planet.  And surely the experience is enriching.  But both meetings could be so much more if only we weren’t locked into a school-like format.

We humans learn as we make discoveries and face challenges. We learn by translating our experiences into story, song, art, into something created.  We learn through the wisdom of our bodies. We don’t learn as fully when passively sitting still and shutting up for long periods of time indoors. Opening conferences (and any educational venture) to more direct involvement lets the lessons sink in deeper, making whatever we’ve learned more easily applied in our real lives.

I’ve worked for years teaching non-violence techniques to teachers and community groups (and I hope making the workshop experience a lively one).  A key ingredient is finding common ground with those you perceive as dissimilar to yourself.  Connecting with others leads to rich possibilities.  The new combinations can be awesome.

Returning to my chair I can’t help but remember an old 80’s advertisement for candy.  Chocolate and peanut butter collide and find that together they are more delicious, creating a whole new confection that the world loves.

I imagine the doors to both conference rooms bursting wide open and the participants merging. Meditations combining with prayers.  Affirmations mixing with hymns. Our mutual dislike of sitting too long in these chairs turning into a joyous celebration that dances beyond the doors.  How much we all have to share with each other.

And yes, maybe I do imagine tasting those strawberries at last.


Look Up

nature exposure linked to nearsightedness, cloud appreciation, cloud collectors,

Summer. Perfect for lounging around doing nothing more than gazing at clouds. It’s a completely free pastime.

The traditional spot to indulge in this pleasurable activity is sitting in the grass. Better yet, lying on the grass. Stay there as clouds drift into view over treetops and roofs, slowly changing form. Linger long enough, you might insist you can feel the planet moving.

Looking at clouds is a perfect way to disengage from all the buzzing, ringing distractions that claw our attention to shreds. Those puffs of air vapor seem to invite contemplation. And that’s good. Daydreaming is so rejuvenating that it can boost creativity. It also helps us to relax, review emotion-laden situations calmly, generate new ideas, and get to know ourselves better.

When we let our minds wander, we’re in what neuroscience calls the “default mode network.”  An L.A. Times article titled, “An Idle Brain May Be The Self’s Workshop” notes,

“Just as sleep appears to play an important role in learning, memory consolidation and maintaining the body’s metabolic function, some scientists wonder whether unstructured mental time — time to zone out and daydream — might also play a key role in our mental well-being. If so, that’s a cautionary tale for a society that prizes productivity and takes a dim view of mind-wandering.”

Even when you don’t have time to lie in the grass, take the time to look up. You may notice there’s really no such thing as a less-than-fascinating sky. Raining, snowing, overcast, starry, it’s all lovely and always in a slightly different way.  It has to do with seeing, really seeing.

I learned this when I helped conduct a psychology study in college.  We went to urban office buildings and asked people two questions. First, we asked each person to describe his or her mood. Second, we asked them to describe the current appearance of the sky. These people were in their offices or hallways when we talked to them and the windows in most buildings were shuttered with horizontal blinds ubiquitous during that decade, so the only way they could have described the sky is if they had paid attention on their way to work or during a break. Here’s the interesting part. The people who identified themselves as pessimistic, angry, depressed or in other negative terms were also the ones unable to describe the sky’s appearance. You guessed it. The happiest and most optimistic people either correctly described the sky or came very close.

That study was never published, but research these days now indicates that pausing to experience nature in our daily lives is powerfully positive. Just a few minutes of regular exposure has been shown to improve our emotional and physical health. It leads us to be more generous, to enhance relationships and value community. The effect of nature, even looking out a window at nearby trees, seems to lead us, as one researcher noted, to be “our best selves.”

Go ahead, look at some clouds right now. You may see a cloud pig sailing a cloud boat. The sailboat may morph into French fries before the whole thing breaks apart into a shape resembling a bongo-playing octopus. Good thing the images we see in clouds aren’t a meterological Rorschach test.

stress relief, look at the sky,


Find out how nature-deprivation can affect your child’s eyesight.

Check out the Cloud Appreciation Society.  You can post photos to the online gallery, chat about all things cloudy on the forum, and live by their manifesto which includes a pledge to fight “blue-sky thinking.”

Consider becoming cloud collectors. Bird watchers keep a life list of their sightings, now cloud watchers can do the same with The Cloud Collector’s Handbook by Gavin Pretor-Pinney. Packed with beautiful photos, this is a perfect book for adults and kids to share as they “collect” different cloud types.

You might want to keep a handbook near a window or in your car, ready to help with identifications. Two of the best are The Cloudspotter’s Guide: The Science, History, and Culture of Clouds also by Gavin Pretor-Pinney and The Book of Clouds by John A. Day, who was known through his long career as Cloudman. Check out resources on Cloudman’s site including instructions for making a cloud discovery notebook, tips for photographing clouds, and cloud history.

More information available through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

family fun cloud watching,

Why You Care About (insert celebrity here)

celebrity obsession, fans, reality tv, media hypervigilance, celebrity worship, celebrity idols,

The distance between a baby in arms and nursing mother is eight to 15 inches, perfect for the focusing ability of a newborn. Even the youngest babies speak with their eyes. They hunger for eye contact and tell us how to respond to them by looking delighted, looking away, watching intently, or drifting off to sleep. When babies are cared for by people who are nurturing and responsive they learn to trust.

When a baby is a few months old,  he or she is held upright in a parent’s arms, still in close facial range. Such young children, still new to speech, pay close attention to a parent’s expression especially in new or unsettling situations. Eye contact is paired with the comfort of close body proximity. The child’s nerve endings continually input the sensation of being held safely but gently while correlating movement, smells, tastes, and sounds they experience.

celebrity worship explained, eye contact through tv screen, depression linked to tv, relationships versus tv, screens and mental health,  Close proximity to loved ones. (dhgoodman's flickr photostream)

Close proximity to loved ones. (dhgoodman’s flickr photostream)

As children get older they still are in close proximity to caregivers and family members, but also become close to friends. Face to face contact is likely with a few close friends as the child matures, and perhaps some face time with a disciplining teacher or coach also makes a pretty strong impact.

I’m not heading in the direction you suspect. This isn’t about growing up with insufficient eye contact, although when everyone is distracted by handheld screens this may be an increasingly sorrowful issue.

There are cultural variations in personal space as we become adults but in general, close personal contact has a lot to do with close emotional connections. We care about the people we’re closest to, literally, and our emotional health hinges on whether they care about us. In fact, two studies showed that strangers who were asked to maintain eye contact for two full minutes reacted by not only liking the other person but feeling “passionate love” for that person. Talk about the power of eyes, up close!

We also have, whether we recognize it or not, close associations between their facial expressions and our own self image. Closeness to another person’s face also means sensory experiences—smell, touch, taste, and movement that helps us continually form a sense of ourselves in relation to other people. That may be why brief sexual encounters and bad relationships are so emotionally damaging, not enough time spent looking with affection at one another’s faces along with insufficient eye contact. We’re left feeling as if we aren’t fully ourselves in the relationship, we’re not SEEN for who we are. That may be the case in unhealthy family dynamics too—-not enough face time or face time associated with unresponsive nurturing (either inattentive or intrusive). And inappropriate facial closeness, a screaming boss or threatening bully or dangerous intruder, can strip away this very essential boundary we establish early on that only welcomes those people who nurture us in some way to get that close.

How many people have you been in close facial proximity to over and over, so many times that their faces are more known to you than your own face? I’m guessing not that many. In childhood it was likely your parents, maybe a grandparent, and a close sibling or two. In adulthood it may be a partner (or several partners over time) and your own children. Tally that up. Perhaps a dozen people in total?

proximity and relationships, eye contact effects, eye contact affection,

I know, I’m slow getting around to my point but here it is. We are primed to care about and expect reciprocal caring from people whose faces we regularly see up-close, to know we have a place in each other’s lives. Screens change all that.

Movies, television, videos, and some video games bring other faces into personal range. You aren’t nose to nose with the screen but zoom shots bring those expressive lips and eyes up close, letting our brains experience an intimacy that isn’t there.  That’s the only way acting and filming techniques work, when viewers suspend reality by believing what’s on the screen. These screens have been around a scrap of time in the long expanse of human history. We’ve evolved to care intensely for and do everything we can to stay in touch with to those who have been repeatedly in close eye contact with us. They are, our bodies and minds believe, the core members of our tribe. Now there’s a good chance you see close-up faces of broadcasters, movie stars, and sports figures at least as many hours a day, probably more, than you do your close friends and family.

alienation tv, eye contact essential,

Feel connected? ( Bludgeoner86 flickr photostream)

I deeply appreciate the way technology allows us to learn and connect. I’m also a movie-watcher and fan of several TV series, so I’m not pointing any fingers. But I am intrigued about the way technology intersects with, perhaps intrudes upon, the unspoken essence of loving connection.

I wonder if this explains obsession with celebrities and absorption with lives of reality TV participants. I wonder if this relates to widespread problems in sustaining relationships, to general malaise, and to the fact that ten times more people are suffering major depression than than during World War II. (Yes, there are other factors.)

If we expect reciprocal attention and care from those whose faces are close to us, yet those faces can’t see us, it may very well reinforce a sense of loneliness and misery. It would drive us back to those screens, to look again and again at eyes that for the moment seem so close.

The concept seems laughable, but still I wonder. What do you think?