To the teachers at school who told me my life was not real, the ones who said ‘you’re in for a shock when you get out into the real world’, I ask you this:
Do you think that the limits of your knowledge and experience are the limits of knowledge and experience?
There is so much that we don’t know yet and if you grow up enough you may yet learn that your childhood fantasies were real.
I was reading comments on a parenting forum the other day and was struck by one dad-to-be declaring that he would give his child everything it needs but wants would have to be earned, because in the ‘real world’ this is how things work, in fact you have to earn your needs too but he was prepared to supply those freely to his child as it grew.
My first thought was ‘are you sure you should be having a child?’
My second was to question what it is about the life of a child that is somehow less real than the life of an adult.
If you insist on your child earning everything she wants then how will she learn the pleasure of giving as a simple act of loving-kindness? Is your real world made up only of work for money and material possessions? Is there no love or pleasure or compassion in the real world?
You are teaching her that all the knowledge and experience she gains that is not part of supporting this status quo is unreal and invalid. Furthermore you are teaching her that this status quo is not just how things are, but how things should be.
You probably also think that ‘one of the most important lessons you will ever learn in life is that life is not fair’ as if this is somehow both self-evident and self justifying and therefore should be accepted without question.
You want to teach your child how to think and how to be so that they can learn their place in the real world and keep within those limits.
You can keep your real world; I want no place in it.
I want to offer my child a place of safety so that she can explore how to think and how to be so that she can learn to create her own place in a world that she contributes to shaping.
This is a lofty ambition for a toddler, but following the druid goals of nurturing wisdom love and creativity in order to achieve this can start right from the beginning simply by noticing and by validating the reality of your child’s experience and allowing them to explore and learn at whatever pace that needs to happen for them.
The reason I was looking at parenting forums was because my twelve month old has started having tantrums. This is something that I thought was normally associated with the ‘terrible twos’ and I was curious to see if she is displaying advanced (albeit ear-drum shattering) behaviour or whether this is actually normal at twelve months and just happened to be something my older children did not do (the older ones also slept through the night by three months but this was in the days before high-speed hand-held internet so I assumed it was normal – it turns out I was very wrong). I typed ‘my twelve month old has terrible twos’ into the search engine and instead of getting developmental milestones, I got forums where people were discussing behaviour management tips and strategies for babies. Yes, really!
One of the tantrums was caused by her not being allowed what she wanted (a piece of orange peel from the compost heap); the other was caused by my failure to understand whatever it was she was trying to communicate. On both occasions I just picked her up, said something soothing about the world ending (validating her experience) and took her off to do something else. Behaviour management did not occur to me so it wasn’t what I was looking for but I felt compelled to read anyway.
It turns out that time-out and the naughty step are popular strategies for dealing with 12-18 month old children that throw food. That shocked me; throwing food at that age is not naughty it’s just part of being that age. One of my standard responses: ‘Ooh, how did that get on the floor did you drop it? –food doesn’t belong on the floor silly – food belongs on your plate or in your mouth’. Obviously this response makes no immediate difference to what happens to her food. Why food ends up on the floor is very variable: sometimes it is a game to make mum or dad bend over and pick it up, sometimes it is poorly coordinated self feeding and sometimes it is because she doesn’t want to eat any more so her food magically transforms into toys. Whatever the particular reason, it is all part of exploring and learning about what happens and about how people react, so whatever mess it leaves us clearing up it is a step on the path to wisdom. (This article on mealtime milestones covers it pretty well although the specific ages will vary from child to child.)
Learning what happens and how people react is experiential learning, it is exactly about finding out how the ‘real world’ works. Food has always fallen to the ground when dropped ever since Newton invented gravity back in 1687, but this only becomes real to a child when they discover it for themselves. As children learn and grow, their questions and experiments change. I remember exploring some pretty big moral and metaphysical issues as I grew up from the existence of the tooth fairy through the sentience of a foetus to attempting to recreate the drug enhanced shamanic wisdom of don Juan Matus. My world does not feel any more real now than it did then. I did not experience any seismic shift in consciousness when I started paying for my own food. The big questions about life, the universe and everything still matter to me, I believe that imagination is often a manifestation of the world of spirit or collective unconscious or whatever you want to call it and that the fears and worries and loves and desires of a child are just as real as those of adults and I still rally against unfairness.
I have learned the important lesson that life is not fair: I have seen bad things happen to good people that human intervention has been powerless to prevent and I have been hurt by it and had no choice but to come to acceptance of it. I have also seen bad things happen to good people as a direct result of human-created social structures and hierarchies and even though I am now an adult I see no reason to accept that these are an immutable unchangeable fact of life that can only be challenged by children who are apparently ignorant of the ‘real world’.
I hope that by supporting and validating my child in her need to explore and experiment and push boundaries and question perceived injustice (even in the ear-splitting form of toddler tantrums) that she will find the wisdom to have a positive impact in the real world.