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Educating in love

Educating in love

(excerpts from Silvia Casabianca's new book:
Our heart-minded brains)

Loving without knowing how to love wounds the person we love. To know how to love someone, we need to understand them. To understand them, we have to listen. 
—Thich Nhat Hanh.
At the age of nine, a moment of inspiration set me on a path to becoming an educator. I felt, rather than knew, that something was wrong with education, both at home and at school. I would have to reread Little Men, by Louisa May Alcott to fully understand the impact this book had on me at that early age. The Plumfield Estate School, run by Mama Baher (the protagonist) with her husband, seemed like a paradise where children were treated with respect and affection, but, above all, where there was an understanding that the students were children, and teachers allowed them to be so.

Although I had already been born with a call to heal (a desire to become a doctor that goes as far back as I can recall) and had also made my first attempts at writing stories, I promised to myself that one day I would create a different kind of school. It took me thirty-four years to gather enough faith in myself to dare to start one. 

The school project came together thanks to the selfless dedication of the members of our Fundación para el Desarrollo del Joven, fundeijoven, created in 1991, and later thanks to the support of a relative, Margot de Pellegrino, founder of the Fundación para la Actualización de la Educación (FACE), in Bogotá. Without the background of my youth work in Magangué in 1986, a youth project developed in Barrio Chiquinquirá in Cartagena, between 1988 and 1989, through the Fundación Amigos de los Niños, and the successful experience of our Carpe Diem school in Cartagena, I would not claim any authority to talk about educating in love. Ours was a very fruitful experience. In our model of education (1991 to 2001), we created an environment with zero tolerance to any form of violence and children were never coerced into studying out of fear of not passing tests or failing grades. Students evaluated themselves according to the objectives they had previously set. Teachers learned to avoid labeling children, understanding the negative impact labels had on the formation of the child’s identity.

We learned how student-centered education that respects the individual’s pace and interests renders positive outcomes. Instead of memorizing, children learned to ask questions, formulate hypotheses, and search for answers. It stimulated their critical thinking and mathematical skills. At Carpe Diem, children had direct access to books in their classrooms (use of computers was still limited). 
British academic Steven Wheeler says, “Pedagogy is leading people to a place where they can learn for themselves.” But it doesn’t always works that way. In many cases, education fosters dependency.

We implemented a learning process in which children could access information sources, acquire skills to process data, and find practical ways to apply it to reality. It facilitated the acquisition of advanced cognitive abilities. Our pedagogical innovation was intent on eliminating fear. It aimed at becoming a model for educating in love. No doubt fear is a strong motivator. It leads you to do whatever prevents pain. It works as an external emotional regulator. But educating in love involves applying empathy in the educational process. It leads to self-soothing, to introspection, to the strengthening of bonds.

In those days, our experiment, carried out on a small scale, was an exception to the rule. But the school FACE founded in Bogotá, continues to grow thirty-five years later, demonstrating that educating in love is viable. There are FACE schools in the Colombian cities of Bogotá, Cúcuta, Armenia, Santa Marta, and Villavicencio.

Some children came to Carpe Diem after experiencing difficulties in other education centers. Most had lost motivation for learning and felt frustrated for not achieving what was expected of them in their previous schools. Some had trouble socializing, which seemed related to highly competitive environments where they had experienced bullying. But often, it was the unrealistic expectations of their parents—frustrated by certain behaviors or because the children were falling short of high standards—that seemed to be at the root of the children’s behavior.

In our experience, an institution concerned more with academics or achievement than with the student’s process runs the risk of neglecting the emotional development of the child in all its different components: affect, safety, the ability to be assertive, socialization, and the management of sexuality.

The role schools play

Besides the family, the school is one of the most crucial social factors influencing the emotional maturation of the child; therefore, it’s also decisive in the development of cognitive processes (attention, memory, perception, and observation). But schools can also have a significant impact on the emotional and social development of the child. Therefore, they must aim at creating anxiety-free environments while contributing to nurturing and gratifying the emotional needs of the child, promoting curiosity, allowing exploration, and stimulating mastery of certain skills and talents.

The spiritual leader Osho said that schools should focus on teaching the art of living, the art of dying, and meditation (in addition to some English, science, and mathematics):

"A real education will not teach you how to compete; it will teach you to cooperate. It will not teach you to fight and come first. It will teach you to be creative, to be loving, to be blissful, without any comparison with the other. It will not teach you that you can be happy only when you are the first."

Do schools teach children how to love others? Do schools show children the best ways to love and respect their bodies? 
It’s sad to see how many children eat plenty of foods laden with empty-calories or fats (junk food) or subject their bodies to exercises and fashion regimes without grasping the long-term negative impact those might have on their bodies. At Carpe Diem, children learned they had choices, but eating junk food was not one of them. To make a healthy decision you need to first fully develop your awareness. Teachers (and parents) need to direct the attention of the child to what is best for them.

The issue of loving the body deserves special mention in a consumer society that seems to promote a progressive and slow murdering of our bodies. I would dispute that allowing the children to choose certain foods is love. Why would we feed our children with foods that lead to chronic inflammation and illnesses? Only because we’re not making healthy choices ourselves. Please note the terms we use reflect the treatment we give our bodies: you kill yourself working; you eat crapyou party until the body can no longer resist; you might compete to death. These expressions are woven into the fabric of a culture that steadily disrespects the body by feeding it badly and subjecting it to a sedentary lifestyle or to excessive exercise or work. This is not to mention how widespread the abuse of mood-altering substances and pharmaceuticals has become.

The benefits of learning to love extend beyond oneself, but they begin with self-knowledge and the development of self-compassion.
In theArt of Loving, Fromm speaks about how, in the process of learning love, as with of any other art, certain requirements exist—discipline, concentration, patience, and dedication—without which the art can’t be mastered. In addition, he suggested, other skills must be learned that indirectly contribute to the development of the art.

Our school, Carpe Diem, included two weekly hours for self-knowledge in the schedule. We provided a safe space for the children so they could examine their relational issues and learn to express their feelings openly. “Safe space” is a therapeutic term referring to a place and moment in which a person could feel comfortable and safe. Where they could express themselves freely and gain insight, knowing that they will be listened to and accepted, and that what is said is confidential.

Once a safe space is created, it becomes easier to express emotions and develop a healthy capacity to regulate them. In these group sessions the students were able to put on the table any grievances or conflicts existing between them or between them and their teachers, and this gave them the opportunity to mature ways of solving conflict. Sometimes they watched a movie and discussed its contentor examined their lifestyle and its impact on their bodies, on others or on the world. They used music, painting, drama, or body movement to express themselves. It was a time, in short, for reflection and introspection. 

The years have proven that our methodology had a positive impact on the lives of the children we served. The results reaffirm the idea that compassion can be taught, and love can be learned. Also, that we can offer models of solidary relationships and teach principles of cooperation. 

It seems natural for children to respond lovingly 

However, it’s important to invite them to look at the different ways in which others experience the world, helping them to reflect on the impact their actions have on others, on the planet, and on their bodies. 

Much has been said about bullying. One of the ways to prevent harassment implemented at Carpe Diem included a very simple activity. When a student with special needs was admitted, we invited other students in the group to talk about their own challenges. When classmates reflected on their own needs or limitations, the new child relaxed. We embraced our common humanity, acknowledging that we all have some limitations that prevent us from functioning fully. These might be laziness, obsessing, or limping. Someone might have a stiff knee or headaches. Others might suffer from dyslexia or a visual deficit. Some children have to deal with extreme shyness, others with social anxiety. Part of our life journey has to be precisely about dealing with or overcoming our limitations. According to research published in 2014  by the British not-for-profit organization Scope, about 67 percent of people felt uncomfortable when talking to a disabled person. However, we can become aware of, and relate to, the discomfort, if we try to understand what another person is feeling.

When a child is going through some emotional turmoil, one of the most common reactions from peers is to turn away (flee) because they don’t know how to handle the stress the situation elicits. We invited the children in our school to open up and try to understand what the other child was going through and then to think of what they could do to support their peer. Most children responded positively to our suggestions. Being supportive is natural. 

Stimulating empathy in children

Stimulating empathy in children is one of the key objectives of inductive discipline. In this type of discipline, social transgressions are not approached with punishment. 

Most modern educators are aware that punishment for social transgressions engenders reactions ranging from resentment to defiant behaviors. Instead, a child could be induced to feel sorry for the discomfort he might have caused and helped to reflect on the effect his actions had on another. Then a reparative action can be suggested—hugging, asking for forgiveness, inviting the other to play—so that shame and guilt are attenuated. These behaviors would be remembered and would eventually contribute to a reinforcement of the neural circuits for empathy. The newfound empathy will then contribute to the limiting of aggression and an increase in prosocial behavior.

In Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World (Simon & Schuster, 2016), psychiatrist Michele Borba expressed why we want kids to empathize: 

For starters, the ability to empathize affects our kids’ future health, wealth, authentic happiness, relationship satisfaction, and ability to bounce back from adversity. It promotes kindness, prosocial behaviors, and moral courage, and it is an effective antidote to bullying, aggression, prejudice, and racism. Empathy is also a positive predictor of children’s reading and math test scores and critical thinking skills, prepares kids for the global world, and gives them a job market boost.

A parent group at school or in the community is an ideal space for them to learn about empathy. They can start by sharing their experiences about the environment and circumstances in which they grew up. Then they can discuss their beliefs about discipline and then explore new parenting models that include loving ways. 

Autocratic or authoritarian models are not fertile grounds for love. Most parents and teachers raised in authoritarian systems will tend to discipline children using punishment and reward, as they learned at home or in school. Others will become permissive, trying to avoid repeating what was done to them. In a hierarchical, vertical plane, authority is imposed, and there is no participation to build consensus. The result is dependence, lack of autonomy, fear (if not defiance), and opposition. The responsibility lies entirely on those who hold authority, and children do not participate in the decisions affecting them.

Instead, on a horizontal plane of movement, children feel capable (they’re allowed to do), feel included (they’re allowed to participate), and know that they count in the family or classroom (that they’re active subjects, not passive ones). 
Many of our tribulations, and not only on the personal level, have to do with the state of our relationships. Therefore, it’s worth studying empathy, compassion, and love as abilities that can be consciously cultivated. 

Nurturing children for wholeness

Swiss psychoanalyst Alice Miller coined the term “poisonous pedagogy”[1]to criticize a series of parenting practices typical of families and schools where an authoritarian model prevails. Children are repressed, punished, and abused, and then told that it’s for their own good in an attempt to validate the abusive punishment, contending that the child asked for it. This kind of discipline, its practitioners argue, builds character. Miller explains:

"Poisonous pedagogy is a phrase I use to refer to the kind of parenting and education aimed at breaking a child's will and making that child into an obedient subject by means of overt or covert coercion, manipulation, and emotional blackmail. The mistreated and neglected child is completely alone in the darkness of confusion and fear." 

We need new parenting strategies based on compassion, which is the foundation on which solidarity is built. No, it isn’t enough to feel we love our children with all of our hearts or to provide them with all of their material needs. Our deeds (not just words) also need to speak of how we love one another, and I think here is where we fail as parents, educators, and a society.

I’ll never stop saying how convinced I am that the solution to the problems we experience in the world rests on how we human beings develop our capacity for empathy and compassion. The road to peace and a better understanding among human beings will never be built on power struggles, forcefulness, and threats.

A mother who constantly screams and loses control, a father who slams doors and beats or threatens a child, can’t expect their three-year-old son will grow to be a sweet, calm and obedient person. If anything, he or she could turn submissive, but more likely, subversive (not a bad thing if it’s about subverting a corrupt, violent, or inefficient order).
If drama works for me as a parent, my child will adopt it as a strategy as well. Hierarchical, patriarchal models of relating still prevail even in the so-called democracies, modeling our family relationships, the upbringing of our children, and school education. Those models will never be the best foundation for creating a more compassionate society. Physical punishment doesn’t transform the transgressor’s behavior (except perhaps temporarily) and could instead generate a domino effect. Dad hits or yells at the child; the child hits and yells at the little brother. The older brother bullies the little one; the little one either becomes shy, inhibited, and fearful, or he learns to see relationships as power struggles in which either you hit first, or you’re beaten. 

Studies show that physical punishment between the ages of six and nine predicts higher levels of antisocial behavior starting just two years later. Besides, there is no evidence that physical punishment works as a parenting strategy. We need to start adopting new parenting styles. Parents should all have access to programsthat introduce positive parenting techniques, which have proven successful. See Joan Durrant and Ron Ensom’s research.

Martin Hoffman, cited above, believed that a parent’s use of inductive discipline (instead of power-assertive discipline) can promote empathy and decrease guilt and shame in the child. In inductive discipline, the child is allowed to put himself in the shoes of the other and display a reparative behavior to compensate for any wrongdoing. 

Krevans and Gibbs corroborated Hoffman’s theory. Children raised with inductive discipline were more empathic.They also found that contrary to expectations, parents’ statements of disappointment also positively correlated with children's prosocial behavior.
Inductive discipline, associated with democratic parenting, is characterized by affectivity, clear communication, and active listening. It takes into account the emotional needs of children and their interests but may include a high level of demands and control. It’s expected that this type of upbringing would contribute to autonomy and self-control, to the development of self-esteem and responsibility. The ultimate goal is to build a safe family environment with a low level of conflict where empathy can flourish.
Thanks to the pen of great writers like Charles Dickens who portrayed in his books the mistreatment of children in schools during the Victorian era, we have a clear image of what should not be. 

But fast forward almost two centuries and the frequency of psychological aggression (shouting, screaming at a child, calling a child offensive names) and corporal punishment (shaking, hitting, slapping, spanking, is still common.

The frequency of these parenting methods is periodically evaluated by Unicef. In 2017 about 300 million children ages two to four around the world had experienced violent discipline by their caregivers on a regular basis. These parenting methods deeply affect young children. “Regardless of the type, all forms are violations of children’s rights.”(Unicef)

The problem is not the behavior but that we're deaf for their emotions

One of the problems is that parents and educators continue to focus on modifying children’s behavior with physical punishment and psychological aggression, time-outs, ostracizing, taking away privileges. Even psychotherapy has focused mostly on behavioral interventions. Has it worked? Studies point out that it hasn’t. 

There are still countries condoning particular forms of physical punishment that in other places are considered abuse. There is strong evidence that pain (both emotional and corporal) inflicted by a caregiver disrupts both parent-child attachment (causing what is known as reactive attachment disorder), and the child’s emotion regulation.

So, how can we shift our focus from the child’s behavior to nurturing the child’s emotional needs? Alfred Adler, a colleague and later critic of Freud, was interested in the child’s relationship with his parents and how it affected their behavior. Adler believed that the central motivation of all humans was to belong and be accepted by others.

Influenced by Adler’s writings, Rudolph Dreikurs, came up with a model of social discipline. Assuming that all children were looking to fit in, but that their assessment of the environment was subjective, he concluded that misbehavior was the result of a child’s wrong guess about how to fit in and gain some status. Dreikurs identified four goals that motivated the child’s misbehavior:attention-getting, obtaining power and control, exacting revenge, and displaying helplessness or inadequacy. He believed a misbehaving child was a discouraged one, and therefore he proposed the use of encouragement (not praise).

Dreikurs proposed a parenting and pedagogical method based on understanding the purpose of behavior and stimulating cooperative behavior. He believed all children are motivated to grow and develop and that we would find their behavior’s purpose if we asked what need is met by the behavior and what happens as a result of the behavior. Adler’s school, based on Dreikurs’ method, aims at graduating professionals that could contribute to alleviate social and global affairs 

Based on the work of Adler and Dreikurs, Dr. Jane Nelsen proposed a positive discipline, designed to “teach young people to become responsible, respectful and resourceful members of their communities” (positivediscipline.com).

Both Dreikurs and Adler referred to the parenting style they advocated as democratic. A democratic parenting style would allow the child to feel loved and accepted, confident of being able to overcome difficulties, aware of his achievements and contributions, but also aware of improvements that still need to be made. This child would see the world as a safe and friendly place without being afraid of making mistakes. In the democratic parenting style Adlerians propose, children are seen as an integral part of the family. They’re allowed to cooperate and to contribute their share. In Adlerian schools, children are offered appropriate challenges for their ages, in a way similar to that found in Montessori schools. Children are also allowed to advance and learn at their own pace.

Conscious evolution would include adopting pedagogical methods that effectively respond to the challenges presented by the current social context. We need a holistic pedagogy that promotes harmonious coexistence. 

The educator Ron Miller, a pioneer in holistic education, said, 

"Holistic education is a philosophy of education based on the premise that each person finds identity, meaning, and purpose in life through connections to the community, to the natural world, and to humanitarian values such as compassion and peace. Holistic education aims to call forth from people an intrinsic reverence for life and a passionate love of learning." (Free Schools, Free People, Sunny Press, 2002)

The brain is like a garden 

Neuroscience teaches us that our brain, very much like a garden, is alive and continually changing, not static but always adapting. We’re still far from fully understanding how the new knowledge about the malleability and plasticity of the brain can be positively applied to the upbringing of children or to rewire adults’ brains. However, the new scientific advances provide evidence that the world would benefit from developing pedagogies that stimulate a healthy brain development. 
We can promote parenting in and for love, based on mutual respect between educators, parents, and children. Such a system would favor an understanding of the child’s emotional needs of belonging and feeling significant. 
We need to avoid creating educational and parenting models that, instead of promoting autonomy, critical thinking and creativity, focus on what we think the child should lern or achieve. Our impossible standards lead to forceful attempts at shaping children’s behavior, emotions, and cognitive processes.

Learning from the Semai

In certain communities like the Semai tribe,[5]of Malaysia, with a population of about fifty thousand, there is a strong collectivism. Disputes are resolved in public assemblies in which the reasons for a complaint are discussed, sometimes for days, so that everyone can offer their opinions. The discussion ends with an admonition by the head of the tribe, noting that conflict puts the community at risk. Experiencing shame in public serves the purpose of preventing recurrence of such behavior.
It’s interesting that among the Semai, children's games are not competitive. Instead, they have the purpose of stimulating physical activity until the body gets tired and is ready to sleep and dream. If they use modern games, they modify them. For example, in badminton, they don’t use a net and don’t keep score. The shuttlecock is hit so that the blow can be answered by another participant. The goal is the game itself, not the win. Noncompetitive play stimulates cooperation. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that they are a peaceful society. 

We could learn some parenting strategies from communities like the Semai—very different from those prevalent in the West. They don’t use a reward and punishment system. Their children are not forced to do what they don’t want to. Instead, they’re taught to fear the forces of nature but also how to control their own aggressive impulses. Children soon learn an important skill. They’re taught to preserve peace among them by applying a simple method: give in! Yes, being right, enjoying privacy, having their own space and possessions (having what one as an individual wants), is not as crucial as it is to preserve harmony in the community. This stands in great contrast to the prevailing relationships in an individualistic world dominated by the intellect, where it’s more important to be right than to be friends.

Communities like that of the Semai could help us to better understand the possibilities of contributing to building (rebuilding) a society in which the priority would be the common good, and not my individual freedom, my desires, my stuff, my accomplishments. One in which freedom lies precisely in understanding that my choices must take into consideration the common good. 
On the other hand, the vindication of individual freedom (or individual sovereignty) seems to have factored into our disconnection from each other and the planet. It might explain why systems based on solidarity are disappearing, although they were part of ancient cultures and are still observed in most Third World countries. A society driven by greed can hardly be friendly. 

A close look at the life of tribes like the Semai, which have managed to preserve a communal lifestyle, would also help us design parenting strategies to stimulate autonomy but avoid excluding the other. There is a difference between individual freedom (which potentially isolates and dissociates us) and autonomy (which allows us to make conscious decisions, weigh the consequences of our actions, and take the common good into account). Individualism, promoted as the ultimate expression of liberalism and freedom, might have advantages—most of all for a socioeconomic system based on consumerism—but freedom is very problematic without the other two components of what, at the time of the French Revolution, defined the dawn of a new era: equality and fraternity.[6]

[1]Miller has written several books worth reading. I especially recommend: The Drama of the gifted child and Thou Shalt not be Aware. Visit her blog: ww.alice-miller.com
[2]Durrant, J., Enson, R. Physical punishment of children: lessons from 20 years of research. CMAJ September 04, 2012 184 (12) 1373-1377
[3]Krevans J., Gibbs J.C.,Parents' use of inductive discipline: relations to children's empathy and prosocial behavior. Child Dev. 1996 Dec;67(6):3263-77.
[5]Read more about the Semai here: https://bit.ly/2v8L1tc