Michael Mendizza

Writer, Filmmaker

Leaders not Teachers


Parenting, Playful Advice

Often, more than I like to admit, observing parents is like listening to a beginner play a violin that is out of tune. There’s harmonic-resonance when the adult and child are attuned. And then, there is what most think of as parenting and teaching: Watch out! Don’t do that. I told you to be careful. Don’t touch. Get over here right now. Not now. In a minute. How many times do I have to tell you? Are you listening? Hello!

Strolling down the lane I happened to pass a Karate dojo. On the mat were six, four and five-year-old boys and girls, dressed in tradition garb, more or less sitting cross-legged. The instructor, also sitting, sounded like a marine core drill sergeant, while a few parents thumbed their dumb-phones on the bench. A long time ago, as a teen, I practiced martial arts. Later I had the good fortune to meet and spend time with an Aikido master. Martial arts, at least for most, is based on Kata, a Japanese word for detailed choreographed patterns of movements, similar to ballet positions. The student repeats these patterns until they become reflexes. The idea is that reflexes are faster than rational thought. Much like driving a car. Watch out for that thinking driver. The same is true on the mat. Here was this authority figure imposing medieval military forms of reflexive discipline training on four and five-year-old children. This is an out of tune violin if I ever heard one.

We forget that children are learning all the time, and at explosive rate. Ninety-five percent of this learning occurs beneath the child’s level of conscious awareness. What we think of as teaching and implicitly what most think of as parenting, which is mostly conditioning and behavior modification, occupies the remaining five-percent. Joseph Chilton Pearce cited a Carnegie study, way back in the 1960’s. The child remembers only three-to-five-percent of that five-percent for any length of time. Hello! Are you listening? And that’s just one of the reasons we need to say things over and over again.

Bev Bos, an icon in early-childhood development, notes; “Experience is a good teacher. No. Experience is the only teacher.” What if we suddenly woke-up and understood that this is true? Experience is the only teacher. What would happen? We, parents, teachers, and those who report to care about children, would stop teachings. We would lead by example and in ways that allow the child to experience what was necessary to discover in and for themselves the meaning of the moment. We might use words now and then, to focus attention on this or that, but for the most part, the experience we create would do the teaching.

Remember, abstractions, math concepts, morals, rules, religious concepts, time, martial art Kata forms, and so many other ‘concepts’ gain traction in the child’s brain after age six or seven. The early child-of-the-dream is firmly grounded in giving names to experiences and gaining dominion over their body and hopefully, given the right models, develop what is called emotional intelligence. We might share a simplified explanation for a name given to an experience but frankly, if we really understood that experience is the only teacher, that would be about it. Really, that would be about it, because our attention would be on modeling how to relate to the world in the best possible way, moment by moment. Our attention would be on our behavior, not the child’s. What a concept!

When asked whose teachings should we follow, the Buddha said none.

Do not believe on the strength of traditions even if they have been held in honor for many generations and in many places; do not believe anything because many people speak of it (so much for talk-propaganda radio, Fox and Facebook); do not believe in the strength of sages of old times (opps, there goes the Bible, Quran and other tomes); do not believe that which you yourselves have imagined thinking that God has inspired you. Believe nothing that depends on the authority of your masters and priests (teachers and parents). After investigation, believe that which you yourself have experienced, discovered, tested and found reasonable, that which is for your good and that of others (appropriate, healthy and whole).

Kālāma Sutta

Buddha was, of course, speaking to the adult-mind, the mind able to discriminate, to question, test and discover, not the dream-like reality of the early child. The early mind is epigenetic by nature. It absorbs and becomes the models given. We don’t teach our children how to walk and talk, the most complex challenges they will ever face, they absorb and become the model given. If you want to change a child’s behavior, change yourself, change the model.

This modeling happens in the nonverbal ninety-five percent, where real learning takes place. When we falsely believe we are teachers, the activity of teaching becomes the model. We become the dictator: the punitive, rewarding, punishing, judgmental authority. What kind of model is that for a two or three-year-old? Another scratchy violin completely out of tune. Then, we turn around, criticize and punish the child, and often violently, for becoming what we model. How crazy is that?

Words are great when used to enhance and deepen shared experience, but this isn’t teaching. Rather, it is a form of story, imaginative reinforcement that supports and enhances experiences that are physical; running, jumping, building and singing, taking place in three dimensions (not two – screen based virtual reality), and with living-changing nature. These are the experiences the early child expects and desperately need. Not teachers.

Alas, most parents and teachers are simply doing onto others what was done unto them. To break this pattern, the parent, teacher and care-provider must awaken from the spell and relate to the living world, including the child, in new ways, and not simply repeat the not-mindful habits we consider normal. Our first challenge is to awaken this newness in the people we call teachers, and then empower them to model this new way of relating to the young children for parents. What is that, you ask? Stop teaching for a moment and you will discover it in yourself.

Michael Mendizza