Give Em The Finger

working with instead of against resistance, leading children, foster learning, non-compliant children, resistant children, non-coercion,

“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 Such resisters are called all sorts of names: underachieving, non-compliant, difficult, withdrawn, eccentric, or worse.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

15 thoughts on “Give Em The Finger

  1. I love this and wholeheartedly agree. I would love to hear you talk more about the process of moving from boredom to inspiration. I was really intrigued by that part of your book, and I think of it every time my kids complain that they are bored! They are so intent on trying to get me to solve it for them (not possible!), and I have tried to talk with my daughter about boredom being a gateway to creativity, but I haven’t known how to help her walk through that process when she is resistant. I’d love your thoughts!


    • If we think of humans who came before us, the way they spent what we call free time was radically different. They told stories, sang songs, engaged in conversation, played, and daydreamed. Even while working (plowing a field, weaving a basket, preparing food) they had time for contemplation. All of these open a channel to self-knowledge. Our lives now are filled with every possible distraction. I indulge in those distractions all the time, don’t get me wrong, but something is lost when we don’t have an hour to sit on the porch or lie in the grass. That’s one of the many reasons I adore homeschooling, because we have the freedom to make that time available to our kids (and hopefully ourselves). Scientists and artists often say that their greatest inspiration has come through these moments of slack time, when they were doing nothing at all.

      That doesn’t mean it’s necessary for kids to languish around in utter boredom. Sometimes a few open-ended suggestions can inspire them to build fairy houses in the back yard, create marble chutes out of cardboard tubes, practice a sock puppet show to videotape, make masking tape roads on the carpet for their toys to drive along, bake a batch of cookies, find bugs outside to draw, well, you get the idea.

      I’ve certainly seen kids and teens in utter boredom leap up with the inspiration I wrote about, but a bit of help via open-ended suggestions may open the pathway to that sort of inspiration. In our house, we kept a list of things we’d like to do on the frig when my kids were smaller. It helped when we ran across a neat idea in Family Fun or when we had to leave just when they wanted to start something. We’d write it down as an idea to do later. Then when they had a slow afternoon or they had friends over and no one could agree on what to play, we’d consult the list and off they’d go.


  2. I found that my kids claim to be bored when:

    –They need my time and attention, but don’t know how to ask — because their kids and asking for what you need takes many forms

    –They are in that gray area of tired – feeling motivated to do something, but not really having much energy to do anything. It’s a need for down-time or nothingness or light reading.

    –They are almost recovered from a cold or flu so that last point sort of applies.

    No suggestions or inspirations really take hold. But reading to them does – and they are older teens now! I think in all three cases, it’s just a signal for extra attention – and if the extra attention doesn’t work, leaving them in peace – even if it’s their own frustrated, whiney, peace, is sometimes the only solution.

    Loved the whole post, by the way. All so very true. Thanks!


  3. I love this post! Thank-you Laura. I think I need to get a hold of your book. 🙂
    I always feel so guilty when my daughter tells me she’s bored but your post has given me a new way to think about. In fact, I often become resentful because I’m not a great “entertainer” and always have so much to do that it makes me crazy when I hear that.


  4. Pingback: reacting against “something wrong” as in the propaganda of organized coercion « JRFibonacci's blog: partnering with reality

  5. I just finished reading the portion of your book about chores and the benefits of having children help around the house. Can you please give some insight as to how we might come up with a ‘finger’ to give when kids have no interest in doing their chores…


    • Well the big key, Finding Extraordinary, is starting when children are very very young and allowing their help to be a natural part of family life (as noted here It’s much harder if we start chores later. But of course it can be done!

      Around here we find things are done much more cheerfully if we’re all doing them together—stacking firewood, cleaning the garage, straightening up the house before company comes. There’s a sense of shared camaraderie that helps motivate everyone, or maybe makes the slackers feel a bit guilty. We also don’t have rewards or allowance or anything tangible tied to chore completion, just the sheer satisfaction of getting the job done. And we have to be at peace with how well a floor is washed or garbage is collected when a kid does it. Chore completion isn’t perfect around here. I don’t make a fuss at all about my kids’ bedrooms. When they were small my rule was that the room had to be clear enough to be safe, for example, if a firefighter needed to rescue them on a dark night. Now that they’re older I don’t say anything and notice that some of my kids go through phases, from messy to somewhat organized. I sometimes wonder if this is an accurate reflection of how they feel inside. (Hope no one thinks that when looking at my desk!)

      I do think chores or at least helping with the ordinary tasks necessary to maintain a family are essential, both for a child’s development and his/herlater success. My friend Karyn, an amazingly well-informed parent, has taken a bit more of a push/pull approach that has worked wonderfully. (I do want to note that my post was really about learning and free time, not about chores, and I heartily agree that rules and chores should be enforced although I’m much more of a softy mom.)


      • Thanks for including me, Laura. I would like to point out – and it isn’t clear in the post – that our approach comes after many years of working alongside, mimicry and an understanding that things just have to be done sometimes.


  6. Oh, just the post that I needed today…..ummm….this whole past week, I admit. I’ve been in a ‘push/pull’ mode, and of course, it hasn’t been working. How silly of me to think that behavior that has never, ever worked on me would work on my son. Thanks for the wake-up call, and for writing it in such a non-judgemental way. Perhaps like Little Bo Peep, who lost her sheep, it is best to sometimes leave our children alone, and let them come home wagging their tails behind them!


    • We all do the push/pull things to our loved ones occasionally (my husband will attest to that). I like your image of sheep with wagging tails. I’ll try to remember that next time I’m tempted to drag people in the direction I want them to go!


  7. Firstly, I love the post and agree life is so much more simple when we work with our children’s biology. The degree of biological need in some key areas seems so EXCESSIVE to our modern way of life/thinking – excessive affection and nurturing; excessive play; excessive stories and rituals; excessive sleep; excessive healthy foods; and permenant (but not mean) insistence around acceptable behaviours. This is how we managed to survive prior to the Industrial Revolution, when alll said and done!


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