Permission to pee

2009 November 11
by Evan Lenz

If you went through traditional schooling, you may be able to recall feelings of anxiety about having to go to the bathroom, especially if you were an introvert. In what other context must you (effectively) announce to everyone in the room that you are now about to go pee or poop? That your bladder couldn’t make it until recess? Random thought: even prisoners don’t have to do that.

In first or second grade, I remember the huge puddle that one of my classmates left on the floor under his desk. If it was an indelible memory for me, think what it must have been like for him! I remember someone had to come in and mop it all up, and he had to get new clothes. What on earth would cause someone to hold it to the breaking point? There’s a bathroom right down the hall! My bet is that it was because he couldn’t muster the courage to ask, or possibly couldn’t handle the perceived shame of asking, permission to pee.

What’s so strange about this? What am I getting at? It may seem natural to you if you went to traditional school. You sit in your seat and do as you’re told. You can only get up with permission from the teacher. Of course, this is not natural, especially for rambunctious little kids. But even if you ignore that observation for a moment, surely you must realize, with a little reflection, that it’s not dignified for anyone to have to ask to pee. What if we’re robbing our kids of their dignity? What if this is just one (particularly pointed) example of how we do it?

My wife told me she used to imagine that her crayons were popsicles, because she was so thirsty while stuck at her desk, waiting for school to get out. She would avoid drinking earlier so she wouldn’t have to pee, and then she’d get overly thirsty. I wonder what she really learned all those afternoons at school…

So if you went to school, reflect back on your experiences. Did you have any of these bladder- or thirst-related moments of anxiety? Are they just a necessary part of growing up? Are you willing to put your kids through it too, now that you’ve thought about it?

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A spell of Kindergarten

2009 November 9
by Evan Lenz

Something recently reminded me of when we sent our oldest son to Kindergarten for two weeks about four years ago, when he was five. We had our third child on the way, and although we had planned to homeschool, we thought it might be worth trying. Although sending him off on a bus every morning sounded scary, whatever we did, we didn’t want to base our decision on fear. In any case, we decided to give it a real shot.

I was proud of how he handled his own fears. We had talked often of what courage means: being afraid, and doing it anyway. Guided by that definition, he courageously boarded the bus despite his qualms about doing so.

In the end, we decided to pull him out, partly because he was experiencing such stress over it. He would say that he liked it (perhaps trying to please us), but he just wasn’t ready. Circumstances during the second week of school, including dog behavior issues and me being out of the country, combined to make for one big ball of stress. When I returned home, my wife and I had a big talk about it, and decided rather effortlessly to respond to what our son was telling us, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. We decided to homeschool, and indeed to try out this thing called “unschooling” that we had been reading about.

But one experience that first week of school stands out in my memory. My son had forgotten to bring his homework to school. So I drove to school and brought it to his classroom. I peeked inside and saw the kids standing in a group, singing a children’s song, being led by the teacher. My son didn’t see me at first, but then he looked up, smiled, and waved.

It’s hard to describe the feeling I had. I felt both attracted and repelled. It was so cute to see him willingly be led by the teacher in this song. He was cheerfully going right along with it. Even as I remember it now, I get a sort of sick nostalgic feeling. Despite the cuteness of it, I also felt that something was being destroyed inside him, or something of his personality was being undermined. The feeling I had is similar to the sick feeling I had on a couple of occasions as a child when my mom or someone else gave me a gift that I hated. I felt a mixture of gratitude and anger and guilt for feeling angry. Yuck, it really was a sick, sappy, weepy feeling.

That feeling played some role in our decision, but, by itself, it probably wouldn’t have caused me to pull him out after only two weeks. We’ve taken a very different path in our educational choices, and I have no doubt there are pros and cons to each decision we’ve made. But I do admit to taking some comfort in the fact that my son was as sensitive as he was to respond to Kindergarten in the way that he did, and that circumstances at the time propelled us so easily into choosing a different path.

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On “Becoming Curious”

2009 November 6
by Evan Lenz

Last time, I quoted from Seth Godin’s Tribes. Later in the book (p. 64), Godin tells the story of how an adult becomes curious:

It’s easy to underestimate how difficult it is for someone to become curious. For seven, ten, or even fifteen years of school, you are required to not be curious. Over and over and over again, the curious are punished.

I don’t think it’s a matter of saying a magic word; boom and then suddenly something happens and you’re curious. It’s more about a five- or ten- or fifteen-year process where you start finding your voice, and finally you begin to realize that the safest thing you can do feels risky and the riskiest thing you can do is play it safe.

Ugh. Wouldn’t you rather skip that whole span of fearful timidity? If you believe Godin, before you can “become curious”, you must go for between 12 and 30 years of being a “fundamentalist” (someone who’s not curious)—the first half in school, thinking and doing as you’re told, and the second half out of school, recovering from all those years in school. I’d rather just avoid becoming un-curious in the first place. Skip traditional school and save yourself a whole lot of trouble.

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Free tuition at a Sudbury school

2009 November 4
by Evan Lenz

I must interrupt regularly scheduled programming for an opportunity that’s too good to pass up. If you happen to live on the Kitsap Peninsula or Bainbridge Island (these are in the Seattle metro area) and you are a parent of a school-age child, this might interest you: The Trillium School Scholarship Lottery.

The Trillium School is awarding two full-tuition scholarships for the remainder of the 2009-2010 school year to eligible prospective students. Two winners will be chosen by a lottery in each of two categories, one winner in each category: ages 5 to 10, and ages 11 to 16.

My kids don’t qualify, because they’re already students, but if you happen to know someone who would benefit from free tuition at The Trillium School, please pass the word onto them. The real kicker is the application deadline: November 30th, 2009.

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Learning decision-making firsthand

2009 November 2
by Evan Lenz

Factories used to be prime places to work, says Seth Godin, in Tribes (p. 40). The (perceived) safety and security and stability of factory jobs made them attractive. That has changed.

Now, when we envision our dream jobs, we’re imagining someone who reaps huge rewards as a result of her insight. Or someone who has control over what he does all day, creating products or services that he’s actually proud of. It certainly involves having authority over your time and your effort and having input into what you do.

I take heart that my kids are learning these skills and practices early on at our local Sudbury school. They are learning how to make decisions about:

  • what to do with their time, and
  • issues that impact their community

That’s because they’re given the power and responsibility to make both kinds of decisions.

As we move further into an unstable age, students with traditional educational experiences will be at a disadvantage. They will have had little experience making meaningful decisions. They’ve never been given the opportunity to make decisions in a democratic context. And they’ve been allowed very few decisions about what to do with their time. Teachers and government agencies make those decisions for them. They will have to wait until they are out of school before they can start learning those skills by experience.

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Awareness of mortality

2009 October 31
by Evan Lenz

Recently, I was driving in the city with my kids. I saw a woman walking on the sidewalk who looked very, very old. I asked the kids how old they thought she might be. We guessed in her 80s or 90s. Then my daughter (6 years old) asked if the lady was going to die soon. I told her I don’t know but that there was probably a good chance that she would die within the next few years.

We reflected on the fact that everyone dies and no one knows when their time will be. Right then, my youngest son (3 years old) picked up on the conversation. “I don’t want to die!” I looked in the rear-view mirror and could see that he was sincerely horrified at the thought. I tried to say something reassuring, but he whined and tossed his head back-and-forth a bit, “but, no, I don’t want to die!” letting out even a bit of a cry. Fortunately, his mind was onto something else soon enough. Either he got distracted or he accepted this newfound truth after seeing that the rest of us were not particularly worried about it at that moment.

It’s not as if death, dying, and killing were not already a part of his vocabulary. He’ll often play games with other kids, in which wild animals attack and kill each other, or he gets stabbed to death, lying on the ground, playing dead. But this interchange in the car told me in an instant that he actually understood what death was, having assumed it was not something that would ever apply to him (except for when pretending during a shoot-out or fighting match).

So I was struck by two things: 1) the fact that he already understood what death was (inasmuch as any of us can), and 2) the suddenness of his recognition, at 3 years old, that he too would die someday.

I’m not sure what lesson to draw from this, other than a reminder that kids often understand more than we assume they do. So be careful what you say in front of them. They’re always watching and listening. :-)

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Mastery, Part 3

2009 October 27
by Evan Lenz

See also Part 1 and Part 2.

How do we ensure that kids don’t lose touch with their natural state of being fully engaged, playful, free, and having endless reserves of energy?

One way to approach this question is to identify how kids do lose touch with this natural state of being. Or more specifically, identify what we as a society do to contribute to this loss.

Don’t get me wrong. Growing up is at its very nature a loss of childhood. The idea here isn’t to pretend that kids don’t have to grow up or that they should stay kids forever. On the contrary, kids would never allow such a thing. From the moment they’re born, they’re constantly striving to figure out how to function in this world, and as they grow, their drive to become highly functioning adults only grows. We shouldn’t try to work against that drive or try to “keep them children”.

So the question is not: how can we help them remain childlike? Instead, how can we help them become engaged, playful, free adults? And then—once we observe that they are already engaged, playful, and free as children—how can we ensure that they don’t lose that ability as they grow into adulthood?

The simplest answer that I can think of is this: get out of the way. Our society has shown in general that we don’t know how to do this. Instead, we intervene endlessly.


This is nowhere more evident than in that orphan of industrialization we call traditional schooling. We put our kids into environments—for extended periods of time—in which their freedom, and their ability to play and converse with each other, are severely restricted. We tell them what we think is important to learn and thereby devalue anything they might have otherwise been interested in. We act as if they won’t learn or won’t want to learn anything unless we make them do it. It’s incredibly antithetical to and ignorant of the actual nature of children.

Schools are obsolete, but we as a society don’t realize this. We forget, or never realized, that schools were designed by social engineers at the height of the Industrial Revolution to create a docile, massive workforce in which people aren’t burdened by curiosity and instead are satisfied to do exactly as they are told, day in and day out, making widgets or helping machines make widgets.


People are resilient. While school destroys some, most of us get through it okay, and a number of us go on to live happy, fulfilled lives. But my strong suspicion is that we do so in spite of, not because of, our experience of being traditionally schooled, of having our freedom and play severely restricted for large segments of time during our most formative years. We survive; we don’t thrive as we might have. We conform to the contours imposed by the sliced-up world of academic subjects, and we don’t grow into the actual contours of our abilities and interests—the actual contours of our potential.

When I see a person who is a master at their art or craft, I see a person who has grown into the contours of their potential, a person who has either escaped or overcome the cookie-cutter stamp of traditional schooling.

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Mastery, Part 2

2009 October 26
by Evan Lenz

Part 1 concluded with a question:

When do you ever see kids fully engaged, playful, free, and having endless reserves of energy?

When I read that question again, it sounds almost silly. When do you not see kids fully engaged, playful, free, and having endless reserves of energy? Left to their own devices, they seem to find that state automatically! I’m sometimes astonished when I watch kids play, at how deeply a given “game” goes. The imagination seems to never run out. “I’ll be the pirate, and you be the dragon!” “How about…we do this…and then you do that…and then I do this…” ad infinitum. The kids energize each other with their ideas. They’re naturals at what adults often forget and have to re-learn in improv class. And they’ll do this all day if you let them. And the play gets more and more sophisticated and complex, and can span multiple days even.

So maybe I’ve got things backwards. Instead of starting with adults who are masters at what they do and then trying to find ways to introduce such experiences to children, maybe it should be the other way around. Maybe the adults are the ones who need to learn from the children!

I suddenly get the sense that the greatest masters of art, the greatest business people, the greatest athletes—they’re the ones who have somehow maintained a connection with their childhood. They managed to not lose that youthful energy that’s so characteristic of children. They’re children-at-heart; only the scenery and the materials have changed. They’ve moved on from the playground to the business world, for example, but the structure is the same. They’re still playing and having fun and doing what engages them and what they’re good at.

So now here’s my answer to the first question: The structure of mastery is no better exemplified than in a child at play. The problem isn’t one of finding out how to help kids be masters. The question instead should be: How do we ensure that kids don’t lose touch with such natural states of being?

That sounds like a good question to address in Part 3. :-)

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Mastery, Part 1

2009 October 23
by Evan Lenz

Isn’t it a wonderful thing when you witness someone doing something they were just designed to do? Think of masters of their art: musicians, actors, singers, dancers. Or in sports, think of people like Michael Jordan. There seems to be a match between who they are and what they’re doing, such that the lines between the person and the activity get blurred. You stop seeing a person doing something and start seeing a single phenomenon, beautiful in its purity. There’s no part of the art that isn’t engaged by the person and there’s no part of the person that isn’t engaged by the art. They’re doing what they were made to do. I’m sure you can think of lots of examples.

Here’s an example that I liked, Jason Mraz singing “I’m Yours” live in Korea. You can tell that he chose the right career (and of course millions of fans agree).

In every case that I can think of, in addition to the aspect of full engagement, another essential element is play, or playfulness. This is sometimes more explicit in the case of improvisational arts. But even in highly structured contexts, such as a pianist performing a piece of classical music or an actress performing her lines, there is so much that can be improvised, if not the notes or the words themselves. The master has a freedom that they’ve built up from their talent and discipline and hard work, such that now it looks effortless, and they can experiment in the moment, playing with possibilities, trying things out, exploring new pathways.

Another aspect: seemingly endless reserves of energy. These performers just keep on going and going. Encore after encore. I have a neighbor who is studying tap dancing in New York City. He was made for his art. I can’t believe how long he can keep dancing in a single evening. His shirt might be drenched with sweat, but he keeps going and going, drawing energy from the enthusiastic crowd.

So how does one reach one’s full potential? How can we help kids have experiences like this? How can we find out what activities, or art forms, or sports, or careers will match up with who they are? More importantly, how will they find out what fits them, what they enjoy doing, what they’re good at doing?

The inimitable Guy Sidora in action

The inimitable Guy Sidora in action

How does someone like Guy Sidora invent a new art form, a new way of teaching, a completely unique career not heretofore invented? A combination of speech and bouncing balls and sound and movement that perfectly fits who he is and what his talents are.

First, my hypothesis: practice makes perfect. More specifically, if you can create experiences like the above for yourself, you should keep on doing it and let it develop fully into the particularities of who you want to be and what you want to do. If we can identify moments like the above in the lives of children, we should see to it that they keep on with it. They’re on the right path to mastery. They’ve captured the structure of the experience, even if they’re still exploring what details will ultimately work best for them as they approach adulthood.

So, before returning with part 2 of this article, I’ll leave you with a question to ponder: When do you ever see kids fully engaged, playful, free, and having endless reserves of energy?

Read Part 2

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Reasoning with a 3-year-old

2009 October 22
by Evan Lenz

Little boy thinkingTo some, this blog post title might sound like an oxymoron. On many days, it seems that way to me. On the other hand, when I’ve taken the time to truly try and connect with my 3-year-old son, it’s amazing what kind of mutual understanding we can have.

He has been going through a phase of wanting things to be a particular way and then getting upset when it doesn’t turn out that way. (Actually, that sounds like most adults when I put it that way.) But they’re ridiculous things like, “I want to go with you to get my glass of water! Put it back, leave it there, come back upstairs, and then we’ll go down together!!!” Over and over again.

But yesterday, during one of these moments, I took some time to speak calmly with him, go into the other room, and get through to him (distracting him from his current pain and frustration). I explained how he doesn’t have to be a slave to his every desire. Of course, “slave” and “desire” are still big words for most 3-year-olds. So I demonstrated what I meant. I pretended to be the slave, while he was my master. He told me to do different things and I reluctantly but obediently did everything he told me to do. Pick up this, move that, go over there. That way he could get the concept of “slave”. Then I told him how he was acting like a slave to the things that he said he wanted. I told him he has a choice and he could choose not to be a slave. He could also choose to want something different. Right then, our eyes met and I could see he understood at a real, significant level. He instantly let out a big sigh, and said, “Okay”.

It was a nice moment of connection. I cherish moments of connection like this. But I think there’s a prerequisite to having these moments: you have to respect your child’s ability to reason and understand. And to respect that ability, you have to acknowledge they have this capacity in the first place.

This may seem obvious, but I challenge you to evaluate your own behavior. Are you acting as if you believe your child has the ability to reason and understand? And are you respecting their feelings? I challenge you, regardless of your child’s age. In our culture, it’s acceptable to treat kids of all ages with disrespect and disregard. To respect your kids as human beings, you have to resist some things that are culturally acceptable.

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Mimsy Sadofsky on play and talking

2009 October 20
by Evan Lenz

The Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO) recently posted a free video recording of Mimsy Sadofsky’s keynote speech at the 2006 AERO conference. Mimsy is a founder and current staff member of Sudbury Valley School. I had the good fortune of meeting her at the SVS staff conference last summer. The video is rather long, but here are some quotes worth transcribing.

On innate curiosity and survival in the 21st century:

Every child has a deep drive to become a highly functioning member of the adult society into which he or she was born. That’s what survival is about in today’s terms. And curiosity is the tool that guarantees survival.

On how traditional schooling messes things up:

All children have done a great deal of exploration on their own before they begin in school. They’re channeled into specific curricula usually once they’re part of a school setting. With enough exposure to learning things in the way that other people have chosen, with enough time learning what other people have chosen for that person—at the time that others find it important—most students lose touch with their own curiosity. Most children become less effective learners each year that they spend being taught by others.

On the importance of conversation (a.k.a. talking) to a person’s development:

It’s not only the way we are exposed to new ideas and to find ways to refine them and to make them more sensible and strong. It’s the way to get into another person’s head; it’s the only way to really get into another person’s head and incorporate what they think into what you think. And we engage in it for long periods of time, every single day of our lives.

What that should mean for our approach to education:

Children should be in situations for most of their waking hours in which there are opportunities for real and intense exchange of ideas through talking. To have conversation restricted thwarts their education.

On the importance of play:

The other major area of learning for people is through play. Play is following a path of action or thought freely…We each have our favorite kinds of play. And often when we think about it, the kinds of things that are our favorite kind of play are the things that restore our spirits, the things we return to when we need a lift. Play is vitally important to creativity. If one cannot be free to follow new paths, one can’t accomplish much….Not only do you accomplish things while you’re playing, you reinforce the knowledge that you’re someone who can always accomplish more, who can push your own boundaries. Through play, you get in touch with yourself as a creative human being. Through play, your horizons expand constantly. There’s nothing more important, from the earliest age on.

Schools (including Sudbury schools) did not invent these “methods of education”—play and talking. They’re natural and automatic and they work extremely well. The genius of a Sudbury school, in my mind, is the acknowledgment of these realities and the creation of a structure in which they can both flourish freely. Of course, there’s more to it than that, and Mimsy goes into these as well, such as the nature of participatory democracy, how School Meeting functions, how discipline is handled through Judicial Committee, etc. Some essential ingredients that go into creating the structure in which play and talking and thus learning can flourish: respect for people of all ages, freedom to pursue one’s interests, and responsibility to create and uphold agreements in one’s community.

But my biggest takeaway is Mimsy’s affirmation of what I’ve been learning over and over again. Two “secret” ingredients of any person’s education, regardless of what school they go to, are play and talking. The Sudbury approach is to let kids go as deep as they want in both areas. The traditional schooling approach is to drastically restrict both and then replace them with time spent doing something else. Relative merits of “something else” can be discussed, but that’s telling it like it is.

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Appreciating your own kids

2009 October 18
by Evan Lenz

Two cute kids

Do you appreciate your own kids?

Sometimes it’s easier to see and value the spark of life you see in other people’s kids more than in your own.

Let me put this into perspective. I totally love my kids and enjoy them so much. I cherish each of their individual differences and unique qualities. But there’s this 1–2% of the time where I notice some pretty unattractive thoughts going through my mind. For example, I might get annoyed by a behavior or mannerism I see in my kids purely because it reminds me so much of myself, whereas no one else would find it annoying. Or, in a different mood, I might question certain aspects of my son’s sense of humor because they differ from my own sense of humor. The kid can’t win! I’m either annoyed at him for being like me, or put off by the ways he’s different!

I’m sure it’s not healthy to have my identity wrapped up in my kids, even just a little bit. But I have to acknowledge that it is—just that little bit. That’s got to be the best way to overcome it. Let it be. Notice it. And then choose differently. Choose to let him be his own person. And me mine.

I have a neighbor named David. He has told me repeatedly how much he enjoys hanging around, watching, and being with my kids. I’ve always taken it graciously. Saying “Thank you” to a person who’s complimenting someone else (my kids) but talking to me feels a bit weird, but I’ve come to accept it as a matter of courtesy, especially when it’s a stranger who might be expecting me to take it as a compliment.

But David’s repeated kind words about my kids has worked on me in a way I didn’t foresee. And now I do want to sincerely say “Thank you” to him. It has nothing to do with patting myself on the back for being a good parent. It has everything to do with seeing a glimpse of my son for who he is, or at least, as someone else who’s not his parent sees him to be. In some small way, he gave me fresh eyes for my own kids.

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