Happiness: the New Normal

It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.

~ Frederick Douglass

Something struck me at school the other day. It’s odd, actually: I’ve been surrounded by this reality for so many years, it’s easy to forget that, in most of the world, what I take as normal is tragically rare—namely, happy children. Happy, healthy, brimming with life.

As powerful as it is to witness the exuberance of youth firsthand, equally frustrating is the ease with which such happiness is discounted and explained away. So often children’s energy is perceived as a nuisance—at best, a transient moment of idyllic naivete to be tolerated until we, the well-meaning adults, can break them like the wild horses they are and harness them to practical pursuits. In this view, play is seen not as children’s work, but a distraction from the serious business of preparing for life’s unpleasant chores.

Compare this backwards view to that of Frederick Douglass, who knew that the less damage young people suffer growing up, the stronger they will be as they mature (not to mention, the harder it is to undo damage than to avoid it in the first place). What Alfie Kohn calls “getting hit on the head lessons” or BGUTI (the “better get used to it” principle) is a true perversion of good intentions. Preparing children for life’s challenges by inflicting the maximum unpleasantness on them at the earliest ages does not, in fact prepare them for anything positive: in truth, this is a recipe for trauma, for passivity and learned helplessness.

As usual, I find myself shouting (rhetorically speaking), It doesn’t have to be this way. We can grow our children strong and happy (or, rather, support their natural drives in guiding them to these blessed outcomes). For the past sixteen years, I have witnessed children and youth full of joy and passion—not always happy, of course, but always authentic, always completely themselves, always living deeply (sucking out the marrow of life, as Thoreau put it). Because they don’t waste so much energy resisting, rebelling, or repressing themselves against a dehumanizing system, Sudbury students are free to be and become evermore themselves: laughing, arguing, playing, struggling, working…intense, always intense. And, oh, so beautiful.

Seriously, it’s enough to make me tear out my graying hair, the systemic abuse that manifests as denying young people the respect and responsibility required for living full lives and realizing their potential. For all my work as an adult role model, the youth I’ve been privileged to know in my Sudbury career have served as my models in a very real, very important sense: they demonstrate what is possible, how one can live authentically, confidently, skillfully, and joyously, confronting challenges readily, bridging dreams and reality.

As an adult, I wish I could be this enthusiastic this consistently, this connected to my intuition, my self and my power. Observing people allowed to grow up whole and intact is one of the most glorious sights imaginable. It is, in fact, everything, not something we can dismiss except at great cost.

happy jumping children

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1 Comment

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One response to “Happiness: the New Normal

  1. Debbie Harbeson

    Well said Bruce! I was just reading that some politicians in the state I live in want to lower the compulsory school age so this in particular really resonated with me:
    “Preparing children for life’s challenges by inflicting the maximum unpleasantness on them at the earliest ages does not, in fact prepare them for anything positive: in truth, this is a recipe for trauma, for passivity and learned helplessness.”

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