Shades of Gray

My 7 year old, learning, eating, and discovering in his own way

We live in a culture of right and wrong. The dominant parenting model teaches kids that there’s a right way to eat (three square meals at the table with utensils, meal before dessert), a right way to sleep (through the night without waking, no comfort from parents), and a right way to socialize (be nice and share). Our educational model teaches kids that there’s a right way to think and that through this right thinking they will arrive at one right answer and receive the one good grade. Thus children pass from home to school to after-school classes inundated with a belief system that encourages them to develop a rigid mindset and a fixed expectation that if they “do it right” and follow the rules, they will be rewarded not only with approval but with a solid foundation on which to enter the adult world.

And yet my practice is full of adults who, as kids, followed the rules to a tee but grew up anxiety-ridden with a fractured sense of self-trust. What happened? The prescription said that if you listen, pay attention, and get good grades you will be happy and successful. Since this so clearly isn’t the case, we must assume that the prescription is faulty, probably dangerously so. Is it possible that the formula for success hinges on abandoning the idea of a formula at all? That true success and real happiness are attained through a process of unfolding that allows kids to find their own ways to learn, their own ways to play, and, dare I say, their own ways to eat, sleep, and socialize? And this isn’t about espousing a parenting or educational model that doesn’t set healthy limits on behavior or consumption. Kids do need guidelines. But there needs to be vast amounts of space within those guidelines so that kids know that they are the pilots of their lives and that when they seek an answer, they are fully capable of discovering it themselves – or even arriving at the revolutionary conclusion that there are many answers and sometimes, even, no answer at all.

This is such a far cry from what we’re teaching, and it has far-reaching effects. When we teach that there is one right answer in a world where there are infinite answers, that there is one goal when there are infinite possibilities, and that certainty is a realistic state of mind when the truth is that one of the keys to emotional freedom lies in accepting uncertainty, we’re setting people up for suffering. In encouraging kids to follow the rules, pay attention (kids are always paying attention to something, it just might not be what the adult wants them to pay attention to ), and follow a narrow system of learning that is largely based on rote memorization, we’re not only squashing creative intelligence but we’re hindering healthy emotional growth and psychological well-being.

Harvard professor, Ellen J. Langer, lays this out quite clearly in her book, “Mindful Learning.” In a section called “The Value of Doubt”, she writes,”Most of what we learn in school, at home, from television, and from nonfiction books we may mindlessly accept because it is given to us in unconditional form.That is, the information is presented from a single perspective as though it is true, independent of context. It just is. Typically, no uncertainty is conveyed. Much of what we know about the world, about other people, and about ourselves is usually processed in this same way.” (p. 17)

I see the outcome of this conditioning most clearly in my work with women and men in intimate relationships who struggle with the question, “Is he/she the right one for me?” The question speaks directly to the problem: the entrenched belief that there is one right answer. People in the throes of relationship anxiety often say to me, “I wish someone would just hand me the test and if I get it right then I know I’m marrying the right person.” Or they say, “It’s like I’m waiting for God to appear out of the sky and say, ‘Yes! That’s the one! You got it right!” Much of my work with relationship anxiety involves helping people see that there isn’t one right marriage choice but there are many possibilities of partner that would be suitable. But when the mindset of “one right answer” collides with the cultural message of “finding the one”, the enmeshment is thick and it can take months, if not longer, to unravel the lies and learn to live in the mystery of uncertainty.

We must break open these rigid mindsets. We must learn to honor a child’s unique rhythm, needs, and learning style. In doing so, he or she is encouraged to trust the meanderings of mind the lead to creative exploration and innovative discovery. As parents and educators, we must shatter our attachments to control that prevent us from allowing a child to be free. This is not merely a philosophical plea; it is no less than a paradigm shift that would transform the way kids trust themselves, know themselves, relate to the others, explore the world, and grow into healthy, confident adults who trust their ability to make decisions. If we want childrens’ innate capacity for self-trust, curiosity, passion, and compassion to remain intact, we must radically alter the ways in which we’re training these young minds and hearts to view themselves, others, and the world.

7 comments to Shades of Gray

  • Evi

    Another great article Sheryl! Thank you!

  • Huia

    Hi Sheryl,

    A tough article for me. I find that I need some of these “rules” so that I can survive. For example I haven’t had a full nights sleep in 6 weeks and I need my child to relearn how to sleep through the night again for the well-being of our family.

    I really struggle with this overall concept. Of course I want all of those innate capacities to develop naturally in my child however sometimes I feel the need to demonstrate that there are rules to be followed for his own good, the good of the family etc…

    What do you think??

    • I think this is a great question. There are certainly parenting models that espouse no rules, but I personally don’t think that’s healthy for kids. Kids do need some rules (structures, guidelines) especially when it comes to what they eat and when they go to sleep. It’s tricky to encourage self-trust and include rules simultaneously, which is why I don’t believe that there are any rulebooks that you can follow for parenting. You decide on what’s important for you and then include creativity and flexibility within that structure. Furthermore, your needs matter as much as your child’s needs, and if you’re not functioning well on broken sleep, you need to find a way to make gentle shifts. Sleep is a VERY tricky and personal topic, and I’d be happy to discuss this with you further via email (or here). We struggled with sleep for many years and made the choice not to implement major sleep changes that, we felt, would have created trauma in our kids, but I know that doesn’t work or isn’t feasible for every family.

  • Susan

    I really appreciate the parenting articles lately, as a soon-to-be new mommy!

  • Sarah

    Very good post. I’ve been realizing lately how scary shades of grey can be for me. I can be ok not having a right answer for bigger, vaguer things (like politics), but when it comes to my personal life it’s very uncomfortable not to have a “rule” in place. The “is this THE right person for me” question was very prevalent during engagement. It’s really great to start to learn a new way of looking at myself though. Trying to trust that life isn’t a test where if I don’t choose the exact right thing I’ll flunk.

  • ildiko

    Sheryl, Thanks for this reassuring article. Would you share about your homeschooling guidelines? I do struggle w/ the rhythm/structure/following the child’s lead and the government imposed curriculum requirements. I want us to be willing to become more free.. thanks heaps.. Ildiko <3