An infant's brain contains more neurons than an adult's brain. It is prepared to be wired in countless directions...and to efficiently dispose of extra neurons it doesn't use. (I'm pretty sure I have very few German language or back hand-spring neurons left...oh well.) But this "wiring" doesn't happen overnight or even in a year or two. The brain naturally takes over 20 years to fully develop. Then it can begin to be "completely" useful.
So that means my kids are walking around with lots of potential, but only a portion of the rosy brain connections they'll hopefully end up with as adults. That explains any of their volatile, wild, obnoxious, and immature behavior...they've progressed past the blank-slate-stare-at-the-ceiling-adorable newborn stage, but still have a loooonnnngg way to go...and that's okay. (This also explains some of my crazy imbalanced reactions to their immature behavior. I'm only kind of mature. Luckily 'complete' adult brains are still changeable as well...improvement just feels like a more painful process for older brains...but I'm working on it.)
As I've researched brain development and observed my own children, I believe there are definitive phases of development controlled largely by chemical reactions in the body that are set to take place at roughly the same physical time frame across human culture...the most obvious example is puberty. The brain/body acts very different before and after the chemical processes of puberty take place. (feeling anxious/excited about observing that process a bunch of times around here in the next few years) Different personalities (coupled with different genetic make-ups) respond in a variety of ways to these chemical changes, but all people seem to transcend from one phase to the next throughout life.
Therefore, certain educational and disciplinary goals are unrealistic (or emotionally damaging) before corresponding developmental milestones have been met. A baby can't learn to walk before leg muscles and brain balance are developed enough to accommodate such a task. And once a first step is taken, many more months and years of motor learning still wait patiently on the horizon. Expecting a 3-month to walk sounds pretty ridiculous. Expecting a walking toddler to jump rope or do cart wheels is also on the unruly side. Learning to read/write/multiply/etc requires certain neurological connections as well. Same with learning to independently manage conflicts or personal time and resources. Too early or too late feels unnatural. Teachers must be in tune.
Thus, Brent and I developed The Present Parenting Pyramid to use in our family as a guide on how to educate and discipline our children according to the natural stages their bodies take them through. If you are a fan of TJEd (see Phases of Leadership Education) or Erik Erikson (a diagram of his theory is here), The Pyramid will feel very familiar to you.
To accommodate a child's developing brain, educational techniques and disciplinary styles should technically change as well according to the child/adolescent's developmental phase. Each phase "looks different" from one another. For our family, the academic learning that is often associated with the word 'education' is secondary and centered around higher level goals that support the natural stages of our child's growth. When we prioritize our highest hopes and efforts on a traditional academic goal (like learning to read or memorizing math facts), we might accomplish that goal, but our children tend to slide backwards emotionally.
By focusing our teaching attention on the primary "lessons" listed below (I like to think of them more as 'celebrations'), learning in all other areas of life, including the academic learning that most people think of as education, comes very naturally.
Here is our list of primary lessons that set the stage for all other areas of learning throughout our child's life:
Attachment Stage (ages 0-3)
1. You have a body.
2. You belong to a family.
3. When your body gets out of balance, you are not alone.
Following Stage (ages 1-8)
1. Your unique body naturally absorbs and processes energy, both physical and spiritual.
2. The world is full of inspiring people and things to explore.
3. To find peace and happiness, follow positive leaders.
Accountability Stage (ages 7-12)
1. You are responsible for how your body acts. You can control your body.
2. Natural consequences accompany your choices.
3. You can recognize and accept your strengths and weaknesses.
4. Repairing wrongs promotes progress.
5. Choosing to set and accomplish goals brings joy (and because kids are pretty logical at this age, they notice, of course, that the opposite is also true).
Self-Discipline Stage (ages 11-18)
1. You can plan for the future and choose your destiny.
2. Focused attention improves talents and skills.
3. Self-reliance, coupled with humility and grace, feels fulfilling.
4. Living personal values increases integrity and self-worth.
5. Seeking for and following Eternal Truth provides a life-long compass.
Independence Stage (ages 16-20+)
1. You are capable of obtaining new skills and providing for yourself.
2. You can find emotional, physical, and spiritual balance.
3. Being true to yourself and your God gives you strength and Light.
Leading Stage (20+)
1. You can see the people around you as they truly are and as they can become.
2. You have Light that can benefit others.
3. True charity adds to world peace.
In general, if stages are taught out of order (like if we focus primarily on accountability with our 4-year-old or independence with our 2-year-old or 9-year-old), when chaos comes along, it doesn't get resolved and coping patterns increase (see Natural Defense Immaturity). Therefore, we don't move on to another stage until we feel a strong sense that our child has naturally internalized all the lessons in a particular stage, which doesn't typically happen until he/she chemically and neurologically transitions to a new stage (like in puberty). As they get older, we talk openly about this progression with them (see the Green Side of the Pyramid). They like it.
And of course we have a host of 'secondary lessons' as well (I've pasted a handy starter list below). BUT (and that's a really big but)...All secondary lessons must assist us in teaching the primary lessons. If not, these secondary lessons will be postponed until a later stage because a particular child needs more brain balance and development (like motor skills, analytical skills, or prefrontal cortex growth) before learning in a certain area truly progresses. And some secondary lessons can get tossed aside completely depending on the child. Each child is different.
We used to stubbornly prioritize other such secondary lessons in a way that actually jeopardized our relationships with our children (like when we "trained" our highly sensitive 9-month-old to sleep independently or when we isolated our 18-month-old in time-out until she stopped fussing or when we required x-number of completed workbook pages from our 8-year-old before playing outside). Back then my happiness as a parent depended on how well my "teaching" was received. We were a relatively pleasant young family, but misery built up over time until dramatic changes became necessary.
When we discovered the beauty of putting a secure attachment at the top of the list of lessons to teach, happiness returned. We had some "undoing" to accomplish with the older ones (their bodies had grown, but their emotional state was stuck, confused, and in disarray...at no fault of their own...they had just been defending themselves). When we started our older children on this new system a few years ago, we started at the bottom of the pyramid with them as well. It was challenging for me to learn new attachment patterns with them and challenging for them to truly trust that I was willing to form a stronger, more secure attachment. But we persevered at the bottom of the pyramid for a few months and then started to ascend upward. After several years, the undoing is mostly complete.
With the youngest few, we've started working on secure attachment education from the very beginning. After attachment lessons are well-learned, moving upward on The Pyramid (and adding in various "real" academic lessons) is a much smoother process...and very fulfilling.
I'm feeling the itch to write a separate essay about every single one of those primary lessons listed above because my bosom burns just thinking about how much joy my children and I have experienced as Brent and I have prioritized our "teaching" around these main ideas. But for now, my computer time is through. (I have an amazing, supportive, capable husband who makes an awesome 'mother' as he generously takes over feeding, bathing, diapering, taxiing, and piggy-back riding our brood for a few hours here and there. He's very conscientious and nurturing...but I must be careful not to let my passion for brains, research, and writing bury me...I don't want to miss out on all the life-moments that are pitter-pattering around me. That would be sad.)
Sample List of Secondary Lessons
(bits and pieces of how we teach these lessons will emerge as I continue to post about the more important primary lessons. For more ideas on specific secondary lessons, check your local library...it has shelves full of a million parenting/education books that give loads of different opinions on how to teach these various classes)
How to sleep
How to eat
How to walk
How to say 'please'
How to clean up
How to share
How to take turns
How to count
How to read
How to write
How to add, subtract, multiply, and divide
How to sing
How to dance
How to dribble
How to play the piano
How to use the toilet
How to clean the toilet
How to get dressed
How to say sorry
How to budget
How to organize a closet
How to manage time
How to study
How to cook
How to pass chemistry
How to take the ACT
How to fill out college applications
How to whatever...