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We Over-Educate Children Because We Over-Think and Are Afraid to Feel

There is enough research to clearly show that we are over-educating, over-pushing our children in school. But if you need extra evidence, here are two studies for you:

“According to Daphna Bassok, an assistant professor of education and public policy at the University of Virginia, in 1998, 30% of teachers believed that children should learn to read while in kindergarten. In 2010, that figure was at 80%.” ~ Why are our kids so miserable? | Jenny Anderson, Quartz 

“One major study of 700 preschool classrooms in 11 states found that only 15 percent showed evidence of effective interactions between teacher and child. Fifteen percent.” ~ The New Preschool Is Crushing Kids | Erika Christakis, The Atlantic

If you need more research, please read Inspiring, Troubling and More: Research and Stories on Child Learning and Development. It has a number of poignant excerpts from studies I have categorized under such headings as Physical Activity, Play, and Creativity.

But let’s dig deeper at what is really causing this rise in academic pressure and expectations. Is it that the world is increasingly demanding? Perhaps. Is it that schools are funded and teachers judged based on student grades/performance? Maybe. Is it because parents are more interested in what their children have accomplished than in their joy—product over process? True.

There is, however, something much more core—trauma.

To understand this postulation we must first accept that we are over-educating kids. They sit more than move, not only at school, but also after the final bell with their two hours of homework that many grade three students have. For some reason they have after-school work but we adults don’t have to bring our work home with us; they must study more despite all the clear evidence showing how play and movement serve physical health, brain development and social skills. Children who are naturally squiggly, squirmy, mercurial thinkers, expressers and movers sit hours on end on rigid right angled chairs, behind right angled desks, staring at right-angled black boards, raising their straight arms in the air accumulating cerebral linear data, most of which they will never use. Meanwhile, we have forgotten that nature does not move in linearity, but in manifold imaginative and sinuous ways, like the curves of a tree branch, the bends of a river, the fluttering movement and shape of a raven’s feathers. But these little supple beings that are our most precious ones must stay fixed and erect against their very nature while learning in didactic or unilateral fashion.

We’ve lost touch with nature, it seems, our own inner nature!

“Deep in the human unconscious is a pervasive need for a logical universe that makes sense. But the real universe is always one step beyond logic.” ~ Frank Herbert

Meanwhile, and unsurprisingly, anxiety and depression rates are on the rise. Children fidget more, attempting in whatever way they can to release their pent-up-desperately-needing-to-move-energy. They dare to dream outside the square windowpane, to be set free, if only for a minute, before being snapped back into direct attention. Many children now are being diagnosed with Direct Attention Fatigue. They long to learn about what speaks to their heart—snowball fights, cats, fairies—, rather than plunging into the demands of numeracy and literacy that their developing left brain is not ready for. They long to soar into the qualitative realms of imagination associated with the right brain, their inner playground. It is fully developed at age four, you know? Yet the left logical mind does not fully come online until around age seven. But learn with the left mind children must, earlier than ever, and with developmentally inappropriate and quantitative curriculum that, for many children, makes them feel stupid, anxious and erodes learner confidence.

So why, I dare ask, why do we over-educate to the point of causing stress amongst these vulnerable children? Why do we push them to be who they are not? Why do we race them forward?

Because we over-think, and we push our thinking onto them. The story begins there. Follow along if you will. We fill their minds up nice and tight and then into breaking—into nervousness and disruption and depression and anxiety. And then we teach them self-regulation, exonerating ourselves from their downward spiral. Somehow we have nothing to do with their pain and struggles. It’s about them, only.

But, they need to over-think, you think. That’s the kind of mind-training they need to “make it” in the world of thinkers, the “real” world you say. Perhaps you are thinking about what Rene Descartes said: “I think, therefore I am.” Or you are thinking about how one should never trust their feelings. Or you are thinking about how man’s reason gives him reason, the rationale behind thought.

Yet the under-thinking, over-feeling nature of children makes them “closest to God”, as many suggest. Jesus himself praised children calling us to “become like little children” such that we enter the “Kingdom of Heaven”. Traditional societies have always placed children at the center of their community. Black Elk stated, “Grown men can learn from very little children, for the hearts of little children are pure. Therefore, the Great Spirit may show them many things that older people miss.” It would be safe to say that we can all generally agree that children are a bundle of joy and purity making them teachers and teachings, making them, as Black Elk alluded to, open to life.

So why would we want to take this innocence, this wonder, this openness, this zest away from them? Why make them over-thinkers instead of keeping them as natural fluent feelers? Why turn them into planners and pragmatists instead of allowing them to remain care-free and spontaneous, in touch with their intuition, you know, the inner instinctual wisdom adults are afraid to trust and act upon? Isn’t joy and freedom what we are all looking for? So, what are we preparing children for? Where are we trying to get them to?

It seems we have forgotten the whispering words of wisdom of one John Lennon: “When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.”

We over-think and need children to become over-thinkers as well, and at the cost of their innate unbounded happiness, because we are afraid to feel as we once did as children. You may not remember, but there was a time when you allowed your emotions to move as your body did. Those two movements go hand in hand. The malleable unbridled expressions of leaping, cartwheeling and skipping are inter-related inter-woven expressions of the same freedom children have to be angry, sad, silly and joyful. Fluidity of physical movement and fluidity of emotional movement co-arise from the same source—our native free-flowing life force. That is what is means to be alive—to be spontaneously fluid and fully expressed in the here and now.

At some point in our lives, however, we lost this freedom. It was unsafe to be fluid in our anger, full in our laughter, lost in our joy—present to that which wished to arise, to move within, to live. We tightened up and deadened ourselves. Something happened that caused this. Perhaps it was a stern word, a fierce glare, watching our parents fight, or worse. Maybe it was physical abuse, sexual abuse. It doesn’t take much for the vulnerable pure one that we were to lock up. Small is BIG for little ones. A slight tap to the side of the face can feel like being hit with a sledgehammer. A stern look can feel like being consumed by a hurricane of scorn.

What forms in our nervous system is developmental trauma. It is, as somatic psychotherapist Maria Moser says, a “disease of rhythm”. The rhythm of feeling, moving, laughing, singing, dancing, crying, bouncing gets stunted. As such, we migrate from the supple body up into the controlling mind where it is safe; where we can plan—over-think—how to be in order to feel safe; where we can conjure the necessary strategies to get love. Just being our full-bodied spontaneous selves is no longer enough. We move from presence to anxiousness of past and future. The parasympathetic nervous system whose job is to relax or calm us is disengaged for the sympathetic nervous system that is in charge of arousal and mobility, and at its extremes, fight and flight. We become more alert, perhaps hyper-alert depending on the degree of trauma. It is no longer safe to trust, to simply relax into the moment, into our senses, into love. Danger could be around the corner so we need to be “on”. This becomes our modus operandi.

Without safety to be present, including present to our feelings, and with a migration upwards into the controlling mind, we abandon our feelings and body. Mind is made master, specifically the logical left mind. We become disembodied, which is why adults move in a straight line—controlled—and are desperately afraid to express themselves with abandon, to be silly, to be care-free, to lose themselves in song and dance, to let themselves go, to be as they were when children. It is why play can feel so vulnerable, threatening and foreign, and why we devalue play for the more measurable curriculum approved by logic. Alcohol limbers us, temporarily, allowing us to let loose on the dance floor, belt out a tune at the karaoke machine, and suddenly start crying and sharing all our deep dark stories and telling others how much we love them. For a moment, with the help of perceived-liquid-medicine we gather a hazy glimpse of liquid freedom; we lose control, become fluid in thought, movement and feeling, and in this find quasi-freedom.

While alcohol loosens us, it also reveals how much we are afraid to lose control. This is what lies behind our fear of feeling—the fear of dropping down from the controlling mind that has dedicatedly run the show for us. In dropping, it can feel as though we are falling apart; we do not know who we are without our held-together self that has carried us this far, the uncertain places and spaces our tears will take us.

Bear in mind that we adapt as children to an unsafe environment by taking control in some way—by compensating. This is nature’s intelligence at its finest. Much like how a tree will bend its roots around or through the asphalt sidewalk laid in front of it, children will shape themselves into attitudes that will best help them seek approval, love, respect and safety. What they cannot be, and how they have to be in order to cope determines their compensatory identity. They will become life-long peacemakers, caretakers, organizers, helpers, go-to-persons, accommodators, nay sayers, bullies, wallflowers, anything that will help them cope with or adapt to their unsafe, unloving environment. They will become what is needed for self-preservation. They will deaden in order to survive, but not really live. They will self-control… but at the cost of their feelings.

For most traumatized children feeling is not an option, especially when the caregivers don’t know how to feel themselves. Children will be told not to cry, to be strong, to suck it up, to shut up, to grow up, to not be seen, directly and indirectly, explicitly and implicitly, overtly and subtly, more than we know, mostly because we don’t know, have not felt, our own emotions. Their emotions will not have room to flow so long as the caregivers do not allow for their trapped energy to move—e-motion: energy in motion. And so the disease of rhythm that is trauma is passed down the generations, unconsciously. This becomes inter-generational trauma.

What you have is not totally your own. Your trauma is your parent’s and their parent’s and down the lineage. You carry with you lifetimes of ungrieved grief, energy that is stuck and that so desperately wants resolution—to move, to be made fluid, like a child.

I realized this the hard way. Through years of unhappiness and strange and chronic undiagnosable pain that has only been relieved through work with alternative healing methodologies, I have grieved and healed deep wounds that were caused by my caregivers, but are much bigger than them. Their pain was inherited, much like yours is. And the pain I inherited from them was mine to carry and, fortunately, to release—to un-earth from within such that it is un-earthed from the planet, so that I do not pass it down the line any further.

When the pain was as unbearable as it was for me, it is a sign it is not to bear any longer. The intensity of pain was a boiling point, an indicator that trauma was coming up for resolution. Unlike my ancestry, I have been blessed with many helpers along the way to unload this weight. And, I am not done yet.

This pain, this trauma is unconsciously taken on at a young age, even prenatally. It forges its way into our cells and nervous system and forms an identity. But we also carry the fear of feeling it, for to do so would mean the end of an old story we took on and identified with and that was never ours in the first place—the story of ancestral abuse, mental illness, rage, depression; the story that has linked us with our parents and their family and so on. We carry it, until we don’t; until we are courageous enough to feel the feelings behind the compensatory identity we use to cope; to feel the grief of this old story that has weighed us down for so long and, again, that was never ours in the first place. We carry it until we are ready to rise above the story and create our own. But like a tree, we rise only to the degree that we descend into the dark. Our roots take us there.

Indeed, there is a price—the loss of control, falling apart, uncertainty, weeping, sobbing, screaming, the ending of the old story that falls away as you fall apart, leaving you empty, vulnerable, seen, just like you were when born. Raw. There has been much of this for me—deep questioning, sobbing, shaking, and very loud crying, so loud that my voice reached the stars.

This was my sacrifice—the old self placed on the alter of death. This is the sacrifice we are being called to make, to die a little. But in making it, we become more sacred. That is what sacrifice means—to be made sacred, no longer scared! Pure and open like the silent child still beating in our hearts.

Author and teacher Byron Katie asks us, who would you be without your story? And who would you be without your pain? I had to release an old belief I held that said, “I need my pain”. Unconsciously, I believed this old story; I clung to it; I identified with it, until I didn’t.

Who would you be if not a consummate caretaker, organizer, fixer, placatory, accommodator, dominator, controller? I had to question the arrogant bully I had become, the one that knew what was best for others, the one that bulldozed cavalierly into other people’s lives. I had to question the distancer I had become, the one that while seemingly outgoing was always hiding and protecting, silently nervous and lonely. These old compensatory identities, two extremes sides of the same coin, needed dissolution. The coin was thrown into the water, and in the space of emptiness, beyond belief, a more fluid loving being was born.

Until we reclaim our fluid nature we will rigidify children by turning them into over-thinkers—into things instead of beings, products instead of processes. Believing that the information that makes up curricula is the basis for success and happiness is how we will justify our actions, hide our feelings, and reinforce our false identity; we will get to keep on thinking—believing! That information we inculcate into children in school and the belief in its relevance is itself an old story worth questioning. Is it working? Still relevant?

Children will be pushed along the horizontal plane of temporal learning and living until we travel the long vertical journey into our trauma and grief. We will push them forward faster and faster, which is what is happening, until we stop and drop into what we can’t be with. This will continue to be our hidden game that we play, the game of collusion, a dance of unconsciousness, an illusion of thought rooted in trauma we mold children into, unwittingly.

There are shifts happening in education that demonstrate hope: movements are being made to give children more choice in what and how they learn; there is more advocating for play-based learning, increased recess time and reduced homework; we are creating “trauma-informed” schools where teachers are being taught about trauma and how to sensitize to it in their students; and even helping children to self-regulate is a sign that we are becoming more attuned to the child’s feelings.

While all signs of progress, they are only half the equation, if not less. For change begins with us, our own descent into the underworld of our trauma, our own “self-regulation”.

It takes courage to drop into our body because it means unlocking old wounds, stories, memories, feelings, pains that you have done everything you can to avoid your whole life, build yourself around like those tree roots curving over and through the sidewalk. But what you avoid you will unconsciously push children around, within themselves and outside of themselves. Unwittingly you will treat them as you treat yourself. Your worldview will be governed by how you circumvent yourself, and that worldview will dictate what you deem as important, how and what you teach children. Students will be shaped into your own image. This only perpetuates the story of individual and collective trauma, of avoidance or denial.

Once we un-earth our own story the story that we call “school” will also be held in the light of clear consciousness. Let’s remember where it came from:

“Our schools are, in a sense, factories, in which the raw materials – children – are to be shaped and fashioned into products… The specifications for manufacturing come from the demands of 20th century civilization, and it is the business of the school to build its pupils according to the specifications laid down.” ~ Ellwood P. Cubberley, Dean of the Stanford University School of Education, 1898

This is an old and abusive story of treating children as standardized units to fit into a standardized vision of the world. And it’s where standardized education comes from. By holding this story with fierce heart-felt honesty we can then begin to write a new story based not on old unconscious fear and pain, but on love. For in loving ourselves we will love our children enough to stop teaching them to be robots with obedient arms straight in the air, and instead facilitate them to hone and express their fluid, loving, intuitive, whole-hearted, wild, gifted and creative nature. Teaching will become facilitation, a lighter and collaborative touch necessary to honor the innate wisdom and resourcefulness each child is born with. With this style and loving permission children can dance not just as little ones, but also throughout their whole life, sharing their gifts and purpose, living freely from the inside out.

The story we have lived of things needing to be “hard work”, “no pain, no gain”, “there’s only so much in the world”, “need to be strong”, “idle hands are the work of the devil”, “need to make it” and all other derivatives must end. We are past the point of clinging on to these old stories of abuse and sorrow, of believing them to be true. The planet is suffering immensely, and so too are our children. Un-earthing them from their troubles and setting them free begins with ourselves, with clearing away the old so that we may make way for the joyful, beautiful new we once inhabited as children.

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Whatever healing path you choose, please be gentle on yourself. Do not subscribe to any teacher, counselor, healer, program that believes in force, for even that is an old story. Let no one take your story away from you. Remember, it has served a noble purpose—it has protected you and carried you this far.

Be tender in your un-layering, the same tenderness you’d offer to your own child. In healing you are tenderizing the straight rigid lines of your body, making them vulnerably supple, squiggly and responsive to life once again. Take your sweet time, bit-by-bit as you sink deeper into your pain and grief, into your trauma, moving only as fast as your body and will allow you to. Along the way tend to self-care with many hot yummy baths, mindless movies, inspiring books, walks in the forest, and good nurturing company. Be with those who are not fearful of your decisions to heal and grow, but rather encourage it, and even better, live it. Say No to those who do not feed you, even if it means more time alone, connected to you. Trust yourself, and trust that as you embark on this path the stars will glow brighter, illuminating the path before you ever-brighter, availing you to the next step. They await your arrival back to life!

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Related training:
Teachers as Leader and Learner ~ Inspiring Engaged Co-Creative Learning
Remembering to Play ~ Inspiring Joy, Freedom and Self-Care
Keynote topics 

Related reading:
Choosing Heart and Life Amongst the Busyness of Things
The Co-Revolution: Teaching Kids to Self-Regulate is Not Enough ~ It’s Time to Heal Our Own Trauma and Co-Regulate
Transcending the Illusion of Success ~ Thriving in Heart-felt and Hard-won Truth
Re-Imagining Education ~ Awakening the Gifts and Purpose Inherent in Each Child
The Disease of Being Right

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  • Donovan

    Many important truths here. Each of them could be a whole chapter in a book. My understanding is that our present educational system literally shrinks brains. Competition, comparison…stress shrinks brains…and that becomes a life-long habit. Whereas play allows brains to grow, and personalities to develop naturally, and with it a natural sense of capability grows too (instead of the belief that one is incapable and inadequate). How we educate might just be a microcosm of our whole culture, and how it needs to change – and will, as we wake people up to this truth – as you are doing Vince :-).

    We’re a world that has lost touch with the fact that the birds know when to fly south, elephants just know where to find watering holes, and many of our greatest inventions appeared fully formed in the mind of a receptive person. Like Tolle has pointed out, the words ‘work’ and ‘play’ don’t adequately express what they point to, and may have to change as we become a more enlightened world.
    I think ‘teaching as facilitation’ is a very important truth of the new world.

    • Very well said Donovan, and thanks for sharing!