Lesson 11 - Principles for Optimum Learning Relationships
Exploring Optimum Learning Relationships
A virtual class based on
Magical Parent - Magical Child
by Michael Mendizza and Joseph Chilton Pearce
Lesson 11 - Principles for Optimum Learning Relationships
We have covered a long ground in the preceding weeks. Now we are getting close to the moment you have all been waiting for. “How do we do it?” What is the secret of creating and maintaining Optimum Learning Relationships? Not just now and then, but most of the time, in most of our relationships, with all of life?
A reframe of the questions implies nothing less than a fundamental and profound transformation of you and I as adults, and adulterated ones at that. So we will continue our journey, and remember that this journey is not about where we are going, some distant destination, it is about becoming more aware of who and what we are this moment. Expanding and deepening our presence this moment creates a different future. It has been said that the future is now. The answer to the questions “how” is found in this very moment and cannot be “known” beforehand.
As a preface to our principles for Optimum Learning Relationships, I have included a conversation between Joseph Chilton Pearce and I. Because this conversation is so rich, I will leave it to you to create your own journal questions, which I hope you share in the class discussion. And away we go…
Adults have agendas. Is the infant’s or child’s behavior matching the spoken or nonverbal expectations hidden in the adult agenda? If the child’s behavior matches or conforms to the adult’s ideal, the child is usually praised or rewarded. If the child’s behavior does not match the adult agenda, the child is made aware of his or her breach, which usually involves some form of punishment, be it a look, a gesture, a harsh No!
How do we move individuals and culture from one paradigm to the other, from conditioning to optimum? This question set the stage for a rich dialogue between Michael Mendizza and Joseph Chilton Pearce one foggy October morning in San Francisco.
M: Is there some way to revolutionize the parent-child relationship? Can we take the lid off the limitations we now—even with the best of intentions—impose on children?
J: Model it. Give them the model of whatever it is. We must become the change we wish to see in others.
M: The assumption is that the joy of the experience while in relationship will carry over and the child will want to develop the activity on his or her own, because it’s so much fun. But that doesn’t always happen.
J: I remember my son John with his bicycle. There was the sidewalk on Faculty Road. He got his bicycle at age five and took it right out that morning. He didn’t ask for any help, and it was one of the bloodiest experiences in a kid’s life. He fell repeatedly. He bloodied his knees and his hands, and he would be out there, tears streaming down his face. And he’d get back up on that bicycle. He kept doing it. By the end of the day, he was riding that bicycle. Now, he had seen lots of people riding their bicycles and he damned well was going to ride his bicycle too. Nothing we could ever do would drive a child like that. Not even if their tears were from our beating them to learn.
We had a neighbor who also had a five-year-old. The father had bought him a bicycle, and we heard the two of them outside. It was so horrible that I almost called the authorities. That poor child had to suffer his father’s berating him, calling him stupid, too dumb to come in out of the rain. “Whatsa matter; I’ve told you a dozen times. Here’s what you do!” He went on and on, and the boy never did learn to ride a bike.
The activity has to be meaningful to children, or they act out of principle. That’s the boy on the American farm. That boy was out there at five in the morning protecting the plants against frost. There was never any question about it. They would starve and the child knew it. The whole family was there. No one was exempt. Children took part automatically. To sit on the sideline would literally be outside of the family bond. They sensed the urgency. Piaget speaks of unquestioned acceptance. I’m convinced that the child senses our ambiguity and hesitancy today and acts accordingly.
M: On the farm, there was no doubt; there was never any question.
J: Unquestioned acceptance of the given, and the given is the model imperative. The model is who we are and how we relate to the challenge of the moment. The minute there is doubt—“Are we doing the right thing?”—that instantly radiates throughout the whole environment. We are fragmented. The child picks it up, and you’ve got mayhem in your classroom.
M: There’s memorization, conditioning, practice, and they’re very important. But it is limited to a predetermined pattern. What kind of environment or circumstance must we create to allow, nurture, and challenge that child into discovering and expanding his or her vast potential? Do you see the difference? One is fixed. We can reward or punish them to conform to a pattern. But that is not enough to optimize development.
J: Parents in the sixties resented all authority. They weren’t going to have any authority or structure. Nature’s going to take care of this—total free expression. Many progressive educational systems, Waldorf for example, had trouble with this. They have free expression but within carefully designed boundaries. Again, there are two extremes, the lock-step approach and the hippie approach. Maria Montessori was insistent that children need order and discipline.
M: What do you mean by discipline?
J: I’m using the term discipline in the common sense, which means coercive action to modify behavior. The real meaning of the word discipline is disciple, which meant originally a joyful follower. The disciple joyfully followed the teacher. It’s far from that today, but to my way of thinking, that would be ideal.
M: A joyful follower is the essence of your model imperative.
J: Sure. If the model matches what children are ready for at that time, they’ll go for it with everything they’ve got. Learning is the way of transcending their current limitations. This is the essence of the modeling imperative. If the model matches their needs that moment, there’s never coercion. They will follow joyfully because it transcends their frustrations at that particular time.
M: On the farm there was no ambiguity. No choice was involved. When we talk about today’s children, it’s really hard to find anything that compelling. The meaning of life for many people, including children, is very abstract. Are we saying that spontaneous learning takes place to affirm the bond?
J: Any activity, if it is meaningful to a child, will be learned spontaneously. How do we know what is meaningful to that child? The most important thing is to match the model to the developmental period. If there is a match, the child’s innate intelligence will respond to it. The key factor is the adult responding to the environment and to the child in ways that match the developmental needs of the child.
M: For a parent or teacher or coach to recognize what’s meaningful to a child, they must become skilled observers.
J: Observation means sight and intuition is a form of “in-sight.”
M: The act of true observation is an act of intuition.
J: I am aware of my surroundings sometimes and other times I’m not. If I have an agenda, I find that I am often rehearsing my agenda as I walk in the door. The agenda is the only thing I am aware of. My agenda acts like a filter that changes everything to meet the needs of that agenda. I’m likely to override anything that’s actually happening. I often don’t even notice what is actually going on around me, because I’m so involved with “my” agenda. Adults are full of agendas, especially parents, teachers and coaches.
M: Having an agenda often means that we are not really seeing the child clearly.
J: Our agendas act like the blinders we might use on a horse.
M: With blinders on most of the time we become myopic. We need to let go of that concentration or that agenda and allow another state of awareness to emerge and use concentration as a tool only when needed. With children it seems we are drilling them all the time.
J: Children, especially early children, are global. Up until seven or eight, and maybe even after that, the early child learns in whole blocks. Their learning is instantaneous, as a block, whole, of the model. The crawler suddenly registers the upright stance. He doesn’t see it as a series of moves, but as a finished product.
M: My adult agenda of John-Michael’s needing to practice the piano, for his own good, is a very abstract ideal being imposed on the dream- or trance-like brain of a five-year-old. The adult and the child are living in completely different realities. Unless the adult recognizes and adapts his or her behavior so as to provide the model environment to match the developmental needs of the child, there is going to be trouble, frustration, conflict and despair.
The adult agenda must first be to relate to the child on a frequency that the child can understand, and then to “play” in that reality, communicate on that frequency. The child is incapable of meeting the adult mind. The parent or teacher or coach must enter into and embody the child’s mind, which is the gift and the learning for the adult, rediscovering the childlike mind.
J: We usually don’t see what the child needs. We only make demands on the child to meet our adult agenda.
M: What would be the alternative, a more appropriate response?
J: The shift is from the adult’s own agenda, the focus on a predetermined result, to where the child is now, and what the child needs, moment by moment, and responding according to the actual needs of the situation. The situation is not just the child. The situation involves the child and the parent, each with their agenda, which may be legitimate. The child has needs. So does the adult. Both sets of needs are legitimate. The challenge always is to find the bridge between those two needs. That’s where insight comes in.
M: The child needs to explore all of the wonderful things in the supermarket. And mom’s got a party in 45 minutes. Conflict is inevitable. Somebody is going to end up crying. The challenge is to hold each set of needs with equal value. Can we meet the child’s need for exploration and the mom’s needs too?
J Does the child exist for the parent or the parent for the child? The parent must exist for the child. If the child is not there, the parent survives. If the parent is not there, the child doesn’t. Only the adult has the capacity to embody simultaneously the adult world and that of the child. To meet the child only on adult terms is ridiculous. The adult who stretches beyond the blinders of his or her agenda is transcendent. And stretching to meet the adult world is transcendent for the child. The adult-child relationship, when approached in this way, is a spiritual practice for both. For a lot of parents, having a child represents a form of self-fulfillment. The parent has a need for the child, obviously, and the child has a need for the parent. But is it reciprocal?
M: I have the child to fulfill my need, which translates into my “agenda.” My agenda is a bias that shapes the relationship even prior to conception. The reason for having the child is my agenda. Wanting the child to be civilized and to learn what I want him or her to learn is my agenda. If I were actually there to serve the needs of the child, taking my cues from the child, and playfully, creatively moving with that, my response would be fundamentally different, and so too would be the fundamental nature of the relationship. My agenda often prevents me from actually seeing the child.
J: This translates into a sense of responsibility. It is not my responsibility to take my signals from that child. I’m responsible for the child, which again is my agenda. To be truly responsible for that child’s well-being we must understand and respond to the needs of the child. Their greatest need is for us to be truly responsible to them, but what does that entail? We think it’s our agenda.
M: Alice Miller wrote the book For Your Own Good, which describes the violence that takes place any time our agenda blinds us to what is actually taking place, either in us or in the child. We have kids because we have an agenda. We want to be fulfilled. That is our agenda. If we continue with that, for their own good, we force them into playing the piano, which is an extension of our agenda. And we’re saying that to be truly responsible means that we adults must shift, or have a radically different agenda, or better yet, no agenda. The tranformative power of “bonding” suddenly enters the picture. You start off fulfilling your own needs, but your overwhelming affection for this new human being transcends this. Suddenly your greatest need is to serve the child’s needs. The actuality of this new human being suddenly transforms the parent’s agenda, and we call this bonding. With the bond comes transformation. If no bond takes place, we are left with only our agenda, with its implicit violence. Or am I way off base?
J: No, It’s quite solid.
M: Mom has a need to do her shopping and the baby has his or her needs to learn, which expresses as pure play. If we give up connection to our needs and meet only the needs the other, we lose balance. We lose integrity. Bonding implies a quality of relationship where the needs of both matter equally.
J: I must send you David Albert’s book And The Skylark Sings With Me. Here’s a brilliant Jewish Ph.D. and his wife, and this incredibly precocious daughter. And Albert decides that he will take on the task of keeping up with her, to keep up with her because her needs are so intense, so far-reaching, so extraordinary. He drops all of his other activities. And he discovers that she is constantly stretching him beyond all his limits. Then it dawns on him that this is a reciprocal engagement. She is stretching him in all directions when all he wanted to do was coast on his agenda. He found it to be the biggest challenge of his life. They were in a race, but not against each other. His challenge was to stay just ahead of her. Anything less would be to fail the relationship. Yet, to stay ahead of her required the greatest effort of his life. He said, “You know, getting a Ph.D. was simple compared to staying ahead of a really brilliant child.” And the child needs that so desperately. They’re constantly sending out this message: Here’s what I need. Can you meet it? And in order to meet it we have to drop our agenda and really grow. It’s an extraordinary adventure, and it’s absolutely reciprocal.
M: The child doesn’t have to be brilliant or precocious. Children are inviting us in to grow with them, all the time.
J: Many people would say this doesn’t apply to them. But it does. The challenge is always to tune our antenna and take our signals from the child. Moment to moment. You talk about a joyful experience!
M: If we were to describe an Optimum Learning Relationship, this would come close.
J: It’s reciprocal, where each is bringing the best out of the other. In Magical Child I said that the child would bring out the best in the parent and being a parent was our most profound education. The fruition of human life comes in teaching the next generation. The goal for the child is our taking-off place. Each stage is preparing us for fifteen years down the line and, at the same time, it perfects this stage right now. As we’re going through each stage with the child, each stage is preparing us for our next move.
M: One of the first things I wrote defining Touch the Future was that the birth of each new human being is a precious opportunity for growth and fulfillment, for the child and for adults as well. One of Bonnie’s great joys was this deep sense of connection. She got to look through the child’s eyes and in that glance saw all things new again, this time as an adult.
J: She had to drop her agenda and truly be in the moment.
M: You have to be in the moment to rediscover a caterpillar for the first time, again—what it looks and feels like. Sharing in the child’s wonder and curiosity opens our wonder and curiosity. For most adults, wonder and curiously were replaced by an adult agenda long ago. The bond of affection creates a profound shift. The shift is seeing the child as he or she actually is rather than looking through our agenda. Like the Bible says, unless we become as a little child, we can’t enter the kingdom. Participating in the baby’s innocence and wonder invites us into the kingdom.
J: In Magical Child and Magical Child Matures, I said that for the child this moment may be the first stage, but for us it is graduate school II. We experience the very same act, but now from a totally different standpoint. In effect, we are God to the child. We are the father who gives good and perfect gifts, and here is the son or daughter. And through that, we begin to catch a glimpse of what our next stage is about. This is transcendence. Each stage overcomes the limitations of the previous. Now as parents we become the mentor, the guide, the mediator and the model. Parenting should bring us to a higher level of the growth process the child is going through. And with that we really come into our own. It is truly transformative.
M: You’ve often said that the birth of a baby opens up whole new intelligences, certainly within the mother, and if the relationship with the father is sound, it will resonate in him. A baby triggers new sets of possibilities that wouldn’t have existed had the baby not been there.
J: This is the critical issue. I’m interested in the spiritual development of the human being, and parenting is, or can be, a spiritual process. Tithing and going to church isn’t it. Discovering the next stage in my development, by serving the child, is a tremendous thing.
M: If I’m going to approach this thing called parenting or mentoring or being a teacher with a more intelligent and adaptive agenda, where do I begin?
J: The need, of course, is to approach human development as an infinitely open-ended process. The approach to the infinite is through boundaried stages. The boundary grows greater and greater at each stage, moving toward what? Infinite openness. If one approaches infinite openness too soon, without the boundaried stages, we’ll get lost. So the ideal is to approach our infinite nature, our godliness, through very carefully boundaried stages. This is how we achieve the highest levels of human development, which can never be known ahead of time. The needs of the child for a boundaried approach can be known. Where that approach leads can never be known. That must unfold by actually navigating through the stages of life.
M: There are many techniques to arrive at particular behaviors. We can condition and modify, and get people to swing a bat, dance, or sing. We can force people into narrow tracks.
J: We can boundary them.
M: We can get them to perform in certain predictable ways through rewards and punishment, but that maintains the cultural lid we have placed on our development.
J: With our current approach the boundary never expands. It can’t expand beyond the culture, and our culture is in a mess.
M: If we continue what we’re doing, we will keep the lid on human development. Acting as we do literally prevents us from accessing and developing our limitless potential because we keep imposing, as parents and as a culture, very strict limitations on ourselves and on our children, and always with the best of intentions.
J: The boundaries we usually place on children are not boundaries, but a straitjacket, and they never expand because the culture itself can’t allow the expansion of those boundaries. Our culture is bound within certain ways of thinking that can’t transcend its problems. Evolution is a means by which nature creates new ways of thinking and being to overcome the limitations of the present set of narrow boundaries. Evolution’s response is to create wider boundaries. We honor that by recognizing the boundaries and by recognizing that we’re caught in the certain structure that results in enormous violence, and our children act out that violence. And that violence is about to destroy us. We can’t move beyond the place in which we have been stuck for so long without pointing a finger at our cultural conditioning, in which we are all caught up.
M: Using the metaphor of evolution, we might say we’re trying to evolve new structures, a new set of boundaries, a wider set that reaches beyond the current parental-teacher model. That’s what we’re suggesting. Without this truly new approach, we are stuck. We’re stagnant. We’re in an evolutionary cul-de-sac.
J: Which is not going to go anywhere.
M: Our goal is to see if we can articulate the next jump, or expansion in the boundaries we impose, to evolve another, wider set, a more appropriate set.
J: To move beyond the constraints of this culture at this time, a culture turned so murderous and violent, we must begin by realizing the parents’ agenda has been created by the culture, by what we think might work for the child. Our purpose is to shift parents from their presupposed agenda, which simply perpetuates the violence, by actually focusing on the child, to discover and co-create a new agenda that might better meet their needs. We must begin by not knowing.
M: We can’t know.
J: We can’t know ahead of time.
M: True adaptive parenting begins by not knowing what to do. You can’t know. If you think you know, you’ll maintain the violence.
J: Imposing our fixed agenda on the child is an act of violence.
M: By clinging to our agenda, we tighten the bolts that prevent evolution from moving forward.
J: We have to discover evolution’s next step, hand in hand with this new life coming in. It has not been conditioned by the constraints that are causing us to murder each other. The only way we can do that is through intuition or insight, by opening up to the child and taking our cues from the child. That itself is a revolutionary step.
M: The act of true observation and intuition will inevitably lead to new insights, and new insights will lead to new models.
J: I think it was the prophet Isaiah who said that a little child would lead us. Why? Because the child hasn’t yet been limited by the same repetitive constraints. If we follow that, make that our total response, support and meet the needs of nature’s unfolding agenda, which we can only discover moment by moment, by attending and becoming more aware of the child and responding fully to the signals the child sends out, we can discover our own fulfillment.
M: I’m playing with images of creativity, of not knowing, of being open and receptive to inspiration. This moves us towards authentic play, to be in a state of play, to view parenting as a truly playful, creative process. David Bohm once described the essential activity of science (in our case parenting) as thought, which arises in creative perception, which is expressed through play. Bohm described how this play gives rise to provisional knowledge, which then moves outward into action and returns as fresh perception and knowledge. This involves continuous adaptation, which undergoes constant growth, transformation, and extension. He felt that knowledge, and in our case, parenting, is not something rigid and fixed but is a continual process of change. Its form is closer to that of an organism than to a databank. When serious contradictions are encountered, Bohm believed, it is necessary to return to creative perception and free play, which transform the state of our relationships and what we call knowledge. And here is the key. Knowledge, or parenting, apart from this cycle of continual transformation, becomes dangerous. 
His use of the word provisional is important. Knowledge, our beliefs, our approach to parenting, the adult agenda must be provisional, not fixed or absolute. An approach that may have worked yesterday may not today. We have to be willing to re-evaluate and constantly update our approach to the child. It’s never fixed.
J: That’s his provisional aspect.
M: Parenting can never be reduced to a formula. The breathtaking implication of Bohm’s statement is that knowledge, which translates into our agenda for parenting, for education and coaching—which is not subject to this continual renewal—has no meaning. Parenting is meaningless or becomes violent unless it’s updated as a living process.
J: And for this to take place, adults must be willing to suspend their preconceptions, their agenda. They must be willing to venture into the unknown and play.
Principles for Peak Performance & Optimum Learning
We have never experienced this moment before. Never in our personal history, or the history of the universe has this moment, with its challenges and joys, the sun and moon, the tides and planets, the stars and the wind dancing across the sky, ever been quiet like this present moment; and what a miracle this moment is. What a gift it is to be a human being, to experience and explore this moment with all our senses and capacities fully alive, the unique combination of which makes us uniquely human. Do we meet, evaluate, judge and experience this moment through the filter of the past, through all the ideas and opinions we have collected, our beliefs and knowledge, or do we listen, observe, feel, and respond afresh, without trying to predict and control this magical moment or fit our predetermined patterns?
Most of what we call parenting, most of education and most of coaching is an attempt to reward or punish children into behaving in ways we feel are acceptable; a never ending process which we adults justify and defend claiming that it is “for their own good.” This implies, does it not, that we “know” what is best for them, that we know how they should and should not act, what they should and should not think and feel. When we observe a child, especially our own child, acting in ways that do not match our “image” of the “right way” to behave, we feel it is our responsibility to “correct” them. To not do so feels irresponsible.
Our normal response to children as parents, educators and coaches, which we experience as necessary, implies, does it not, a form of prejudice, pre-judgment. Racism is pre-judging a person based on assumptions of color or ethnicity. Parenting very often implies pre-judging children in very similar ways. To pre-judge means that we have come to conclusions and are responding, not based on what is actual, but rather on past beliefs, assumptions, which may or may not apply to this brand new moment. The greater our conviction that our pre-judgments, our prejudice, are ‘true” and ‘necessary,” the more forcefully we demand compliance. This strict imposition of our adult past on the child’s present and future creates its own dynamic, which often implies conflict and resistance. Resistance and conflict diminish the attention and energy we have to meet fully and completely the unique opportunities and challenges of this moment. We referred to this as the adult agenda.
Recall Ashley Montagu’s description of the magical qualities we admire most in children:
Curiosity is one of the most important; imaginativeness; playfulness; open-mindedness; willingness to experiment; flexibility; humor; energy; receptiveness to new ideas; honesty; eagerness to learn; and perhaps the most pervasive and most valuable of all, the need to love.
Adults fail to understand that those childlike qualities constitute the most valuable possession of our species, to be cherished, nurtured and cultivated [all the days of our lives]. They fail to realize that the child surpasses the adult by the wealth of his possibilities. In a very real sense infants and children implicitly know a great deal more concerning may aspects of growing than adults; adults, therefore, have more to learn from them about such matters than the latter have to learn from adults.
Growing Young, The Genius of Childhood, Recaptured
Our challenge as adults, parents, educators and coaches is to integrate these qualities as active components in our “agenda.” In addition to and balanced with all the good things we wish to share with our children, for their own good of course, we need to remain inquisitive; imaginative; playful; open-minded; we must be willing to experiment; be flexible; laugh; have energy and passion; be receptive to new ideas; speak the truth; enjoy learning; and love.
None of these qualities involve pre-judgments. None are based on “ideas,” or involve “knowledge.” Playful is a state of being, a quality of relationship. Being imaginative, being flexible, being receptive, being honest, all are states of “being.” And these childlike qualities or states are very different than the dictators many of us become when “our image” of what a “good” child should or should not be is challenged by behavior of children, especially our own. Imposing on children the wisdom and information we have acquired without these childlike qualities creates a very different relationship than if these qualities are present in the relationship.
We are not, for one moment, denying the need and value of information, wisdom and mentoring, far from it. We are suggesting that the nature and quality of the relationship, which involves the presence or absence of these childlike qualities, being expressed in an adult form, alters dramatically what the child learns and remembers of our agenda. As Montagu makes abundantly clear, the goal of development is to retain these childlike qualities into adulthood, not to abandon them as so many of us have done.
Alan Watts, an original translator of Eastern philosophy, once said: “We can’t catch the wind in a paper bag.” Translation: life is always moving, growing, changing, disintegrating, creating; and so it is with intelligence, you and I and our children. Neither life nor intelligence can be reduced to a formula, a fixed predictable pattern, which seems to be the basic goal of parenting and of education. Note the conflict. Knowledge and beliefs become fixed metaphors for the living, dynamic, changing processes we call human beings. Childhood, like life and intelligence, is constantly moving, dynamic. Words and ideas can describe this movement, but the word, the description is not the thing. The description is not the described. The images, ideals and symbols we have created about ourselves and our children are not really us or them. Conflict is sure to follow if we mistake one for the other, or try to constrain the living process to conform to our fixed metaphors. Try as we might, we can’t catch the wind in a paper sack.
Our intent is to open and expand and express multiple dimensions in the adult-child relationship. The active power or each principle is its potential to erode the fixed boundaries and prejudgments implicit in our adult agendas. The principles are not, therefore, formulas, fixed rules or even guidelines. We are not telling you “how to” raise your children. On the contrary, we are assuming competence and affirming that you and your child possess and embody infinite intelligence. Our principles, like Zen koans, or other mystery school techniques, help dissolve the resistance, the unnecessary boundaries and limitations imposed by our beliefs, our prejudgments. Eliminating resistance restores the mind, body and emotions to their natural order. Perhaps this shift of state can be compared to the reset button on your computer. When the data of various programs, which can be compared to our beliefs, create conflicts, the operating system of the computer locks up or becomes less efficient. Pressing the reset button clears out the conflicting data and restores the system to its original, optimum performance. The shift of awareness from conflict to play resets the entire organism and redefines its relationship to the universe. And from this original mind or state, we meet the child, this moment, as they are, not only as we “think” they should be.
Principle 1: Be Attentive to Being (the model imperative)
Be Attentive to Being expands awareness to hold and value our agenda and our state of being, simultaneously. Adults often focus exclusively on their agenda, ignoring the actual state of their relationship. Being Attentive to Being includes both, agenda and state. Bringing greater attention to the moment demands greater awareness and sensitivity. Being more present is a profound change in state, one that is less reflexive, less mechanical. Capacity expands with greater attention. Our lives and our relationships become multi-dimensional.
Being Attentive to Being recognizes and incorporates the model imperative, stage and state specific learning, multiple realities and intelligences, non-material fields of influence and meaning in the relationship. It encourages adults to Be the change they wish to see in others rather than demanding that others conform to their predetermined expectations. Applying this principle is helpful at any age, but is particularly important when relating to younger children. The more concrete their experience, the more important this principle becomes. The message is astonishingly simple. The younger the child the more that actual state of the relationship is the content of each learning opportunity. Slowly, as the child’s body, mind and emotions develop, so too does the capacity for abstraction. But never do abstract ideas replace the meaning or information being expressed and shared in the relationship. The relationship is a channel of communication through which the abstract is conveyed. As Marshall McKleuen said years ago, the medium is the message. Form is content. The form in this case is the “state” of the relationship. The relationship itself is primary content, which is learned and remembered.
The ideal, especially for the younger child, is for the actual relationship or activity to embrace or embody the abstract without making the abstract the focus of the relationship. A simple example is the goal of teaching a young child mathematic concepts, weight, measurement, fractions. One parent sits the child down with paper and pencil and tries to explain the difference between ½ and ¾, as might take place in school, using words, to explain abstract ideas. The other parent gets out a cookie sheet and begins mixing ingredients for chocolate chip cookies. At five or six years old, which activity would you in-joy more? I’d take chocolate over pencils any time, and so would you. Let’s see….two cups of flower, one half-cup butter, one quarter-cup sugar, three-cups of chocolate chips. Just kidding. That’s a half a cup of chips.
With cookies the relationship embodies the abstract ideas rather than abstract ideas defining the relationship. That’s the idea. The relationship models the abstract without making the abstract the goal of the experience. Play on the surface and learning takes place beneath awareness, automatically, naturally. When you think about it, just about everything a young child or even the middle child needs to learn can be accomplished through play, that is, if the adult is playful.
As we adults free ourselves from the false beliefs and limitations we have accepted about ourselves, we naturally access, become and model a wider spectrum of capacities. We don’t have to “teach” our children this wider state. They will become this more expansive, playful state effortlessly by participating in our field. It is the state or quality of relationship they will embody, not necessarily a particular skill. Optimum states provide the optimum environment for skills to unfold. That’s the point.
If we are to reach beyond the limitations we impose on ourselves and on our children, the change must begin with the adult, right now, in this present moment. Being Attentive to Being encourages this change, by leveraging the powerful catalyst available, the love, care and hope adults have for children. If we accomplish nothing more than embracing and embodying this first principle, Being Attentive to Being, our efforts will be truly revolutionary. We will set in motion a radical change in adults, a change that will instantly resonate throughout the lives of children, society and the world.
Being Attentive to Being includes both the adult agenda and state. Bringing greater attention to the moment demands greater awareness and sensitivity. Being more present is a profound change in state, one that is less reflexive, less mechanical. Capacity expands with greater attention. Our lives and our relationships become multi-dimensional.
Imagine for a moment that everything a child learns from us, or any adult, is absorbed by modeling, rather than by “teaching” or verbal explanation, by talking and explaining “abstract” content from the context of direct experience. Quite often adulterated adults mistake the abstract for the actual. Being Attentive To Being, like any form of meditation, gathers and directs attention. Our goal is for thought, feeling and action, our actual behavior, to be coherent, without conflict. A second objective is to awaken a deep appreciation that how we live our daily lives, the way we answer the phone, hold our fork, respond to frustrations, the tone of our voice, the way we set the table, wash the dishes, each act is radiating information.
Being Attentive to Being in no way implies that we are making an effort to modify or change our behavior. We are not trying to “become” some ideal. The suggestion we are making is that harmony, beauty, balance, ratio, all the elements of a true work of art are innate. Are we expressing these innate qualities every day in the way we live our life or are we out of balance, confused, in conflict? If, as we have been exploring, “form is content,” the quality of attention we bring to each and every moment is transformative. Without attention, no transformation is possible, with attention, as the saying goes, transformation is unnecessary.
Principle 2: Safe Enough to Play (protecting, belonging, the safe place)
Optimum Learning Relationships are psychologically safe. The phrase “unconditional love” describes this complete psychological safety, acceptance, and feeling of belonging. To love others unconditionally one must accept and love one’s-self unconditionally. Easily said, but for most, very difficult to do. We compare, judge, justify and defend ourselves, and others, constantly. The Zone, state of Flow and original Play exist in those rare moments when we feel Safe Enough to Play.
The model imperative implies that adults must themselves feel safe before they can create a safe place for children. How do we, having been raised in what Fred Donaldson calls our “contest culture,” find this safe place in ourselves and extend that space to include children? Principle two, Safe Enough to Play, addresses this challenge we all face.
Are the demands we make of children threatening in any way? Is a failure to perform at certain levels, or a failure to match our behavioral expectations, interpreted by the child as a personal failure? Is disapproval, rejection, a break in the bond, a dented self-image, part of the price he or she must pay for their failure? Is one’s self image, esteem and worth based on performance? Is approval of others an integral need/component of our self-image? Or, do we and our children understand very clearly that performance/behavior is one thing and our fundamental character, essence, spirit, and soul, our worth as a human being, is quite different? It is a rare person indeed who is completely clear about this distinction.
Fred Shoemaker, a golf professional and founder of 'Extraordinary Golf,' put it this way:
I played in over 300 golf tournaments by the time I was 21. I never walked off a golf course and anybody, other than my parents, ever asked me some very interesting questions. One might be, “what kind of human being are you becoming by using sticks and balls?” “What’s the purpose of it all?” I never got that question. I thought the love I would receive was contingent on what I shot and that my character and my score were somehow related. I have given 41,000 golf lessons and not one person in all those years has ever had that completely separated. At some level everybody knows that, they’re the same delightful human being whether they shoot a 41 or a 61. But that’s not the feedback most of us get. From the very beginning we are taught to believe that who we are and our performance is intertwined. There’s a big myth in that, a big lie.
Director of Extraordinary Golf
Our second principle, Safe Enough to Play, is perhaps the most important step we can take towards achieving or entering into Optimum Learning Relationships. Can I meet this moment completely, with all of my energy and attention, or must I hold back some part of myself to protect myself? Recall cellular biologist's Bruce Lipton’s description of distinct “states” of the vascular system: growth and defense. In the growth state, the safe state, there is constant renewal and expansion of potential. When threatened, growth is replaced by protection. One can grow elaborate and complex protective capacities but these will be at the expense of other potentials. So it is with all living things and especially new human beings.
If children are not provided a safe space, if they are threatened, damaged or traumatized, they close into a tight defense against the world they cannot trust. This impairs neural development and results in completely different structures of knowledge.
The primary responsibility for parents and caregivers is to protect the child by providing physically and psychologically safe place for children to grow. This means, first and foremost, that the relationship with the adult is completely safe. When the source of a child’s safety and security, the parent or caregiver, become threatening, learning, performance and wellness collapse.
Safe Enough to Play is a guiding principle. On a purely practical level the Lord’s Prayer, one of the most often quoted texts in the Bible, offers some very simple advice: “and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” The prejudgments we have about ourselves, others and our children are trespasses. They encroach on our inherent integrity and self-worth. Applying this simple phrase completely to ourselves, others and to our children transforms the relationship into one of unconditional love and acceptance. The key is to model this unconditional acceptance in our relationships by distinguishing very clearly between performance and character. The challenge is to find ways of communicating that the performance, behavior or the score might be improved, is not confused with the character or inherent value of the person.
Perfection is utilizing all the modes of mind... Perfection is daring to embrace the universe as our true dimension, daring to steal the fire from the gods, to walk on water or fire unafraid, to heal, to claim plenty in times of dearth, to behold boldly that desire and become what we have need to be.
Crack in the Cosmic Egg
 Bohm, D. & Peat, D. Science, Order and Creativity, 1987