What’s Your ONE Thing?

After I wrote The Only Thing Children Really Need Is Freedom, I felt the urge to flip through my copy of The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results, by Gary Keller And Jay Papasan. If The ONE Thing offers a sure path to success for people and businesses, I wondered, and if it works in all areas of our lives and on anything as the authors contend, does it also represent a sure path for our children to become successful? And if so, how can we best transmit the lessons of The ONE Thing to the next generation and what signs of The ONE Thing, if any, can we find in our schools today? Could it be that the ONE thing children need is freedom so that they, too, can enjoy the opportunity to pursue their ONE Thing?

In The ONE Thing, Keller and Papasan defend that people and businesses achieve extraordinary results when they go as small as possible, they focus on ONE Thing, and they find the answer to this question: “What’s the ONE Thing I can do / such that by doing it / everything else will be easier or unnecessary?” And then they do that ONE Thing, the ONE Thing that matters most.

“Extraordinary results,” they write, “are directly determined by how narrow you can make your focus.” Success leaves clues. People and businesses achieve extraordinary results when they focus on ONE Thing, whether it’s a secret chicken recipe in the case of Colonel Sanders, coffee for Starbucks, or writing books in the case of Gary Keller.

The authors also write about the 6 lies or myths that stand between people and their success and those are that Everything Matters Equally, that Multitasking is a “good” thing, that you have to have a Disciplined Life to be successful, that Willpower is On Will-Call, that there is such a thing as a Balanced Life, and that Big is Bad.

The message of The ONE Thing is indeed a very simple one: “When you bring purpose to your life, know your priorities, and achieve high productivity on the priority that matters most every day, your life makes sense and the extraordinary becomes possible.”

Put in a simple equation, The ONE Thing looks something like this:

Focus on ONE Thing + Do What Matters Most = A Life that Makes Sense + Success

Now, let’s look at education. In most of our schools today (and that goes for public and private schools), children are being taught, day in and day out, year in and year out, that every subject matters equally, that multitasking is a required skill, and that it is all about having a balanced curriculum and a disciplined life. Children, in essence, are being taught that the equation is actually this:

Focus on a Dozen Things + Do What Matters to Others = A Life that Makes Sense + Success

Clearly, something is not adding up. If focusing on ONE Thing and doing what matter most leads to success and a life that makes sense, there may be several possible answers to the second equation but it can’t possibly be the same. So we are left with this:

Focus on a Dozen Things + Do What Matters to Others = X + Y

You can fill in the blanks with whatever you wish, but it really doesn’t matter what comes out of this equation. If our goal, our ONE Thing, is for our children to have successful, meaningful lives, what we need to do is actually begin with this:

X + Y = Life That Makes Sense + Success.

And we already know what X and Y stand for.

Success Leaves Clues… in Education, Too

As adults, we take for granted the freedom we have to pursue our ONE Thing if we choose to. Nothing can stop us but ourselves. As adults, we are also free to seek any knowledge we want at any time. If you are reading a book so you can learn to change your own oil and fix your car, which would make trips to the mechanic unnecessary, you probably wouldn’t have the instinct to put it down after an hour in order to read about history for a while so you can have a balanced life. When we make something our ONE Thing, as adults, we do what matters most to achieve success in that thing and when we’re done, we move on to another ONE Thing… of our choice.

Children appear to be wired the same way we are in that they naturally and instinctively pursue ONE Thing after another from the moment they are born, and they do so until we, the grown ups, put a stop to it by sending them to “schools.” When the child is learning how to talk, his ONE Thing is to make sounds and practice until the sounds that come out also make sense to other people and he can be understood. When the child is learning how to walk, he naturally makes it his ONE Thing to get into a vertical position and put one foot in front of the other until he’s able to walk. Walking makes getting around easier, and talking makes crying unnecessary when the child wants something. Children go through several ONE Things in the first few years of their lives, ONE Thing after the other.

When the child enters school, everything changes. All of a sudden, his ONE Thing doesn’t matter anymore or if it does, it matters equally with all the other things. And when the bell rings, it means that his thing won’t matter again until the next day or the next week. What matters most to others becomes his new reality. Everything also becomes harder, required by others, and necessary. Not much seem to make sense anymore and “learning,” the child quickly realizes, is a long, boring, and painful process. The natural instinct he had to pursue his ONE Thing slowly fades away. He has to learn to live a disciplined and balanced life because for him, there is no way out.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We can give our children lives that make sense by simply not taking away the freedom we have let them enjoy since birth. We can do this by creating school environments such as Sudbury schools where children are given the freedom to pursue their own interests and are given the responsibility to do what matters most to them at all times. When children learn by pursuing their ONE Thing, one thing at a time, instead of being taught all the things others think matter all at the same time, everything else does indeed become easier or unnecessary… for them.

Let me give you an example. In Sudbury schools, children are not “taught” how to read and they are not given a time frame by which they have to be able to read. Yet, every single one of them does learn how to read long before he or she graduates. Why? Because somewhere along the way, as the child was pursuing her ONE Thing, the skill of reading became necessary for the exploration to continue. How? For a while, the child made it her ONE Thing to learn how to read so that she could quickly return to the other ONE Thing she was working on. Learning how to read may or may not have been perceived as “hard,” but her life never stopped making sense. To her, learning to read was just one more step in the pursuit of her ONE Thing and in the end, it made her life easier. And no, she will not learn “everything” her schoolmates are learning for they, too, are pursuing their ONE Thing. Some learning thereby becomes unnecessary. Children in such environments may go through several ONE Things but that’s the point. Children are not born with tags on their toes telling us what their ONE Thing is and it is for them to figure out, not us. As Keller and Papasan point out, “if you don’t know what your ONE Thing is, your ONE Thing is to find out.” That’s every child’s ONE Thing, until she finds out.

If we are serious about changing education in this country, we have to start by making it our ONE Thing and then ask ourselves the right focusing question. So what’s the ONE Thing we can do (when it comes to the education of our children) / such that by doing it / everything else will become easier and unnecessary? The answer, to me, is surprisingly simple and clear. The ONE Thing we can do, the ONE Thing we must do for the sake of our children, is give them the freedom to pursue their ONE Thing.

This article was originally published on LewRockwell.com.

The Only Thing Children Really Need is Freedom

Note: This article was originally published on LewRockwell.com June 11th, 2013.

As parents, we are responsible for the “education” of our children. For me, that means simply this: if my daughter, now 7, grows up to be a responsible, self-reliant, self-motivated, honest, caring, freedom-loving good neighbor, and an overall happy person, then I’ve succeeded.

I don’t have a career path laid out for her, and I don’t expect her to go to college, even though I have several degrees myself. The choice, when the time comes, will be hers and hers alone.

If you are a parent and this sounds like you, you need to pay attention.

In the recently published book Free to Learn, developmental psychologist Peter Gray argues that if this is truly our goal, “There is no need for forced lessons, lectures, assignments, tests, grades, segregation by age into classrooms, or any of the other trappings of our standard, compulsory system of schooling. All of these, in fact, interfere with children’s natural ways of learning.”

Using evidence in anthropology, psychology, and history, Gray argues that children come into this world genetically programmed to learn, and that if they are free to pursue their own interests through play, they will learn all they need to know to function in the culture in which they are born, no matter what culture that may be, or at what particular moment in time.

Children are designed, by nature, to play and explore on their own, independently of adults. They need freedom to develop; without it they suffer. The drive to play freely is a basic, biological drive. Lack of free play may not kill the physical body, as would lack of food, air, or water, but it kills the spirit and stunts mental growth. Free play is the means by which children learn to make friends, overcome their fears, solve their own problems, and generally take control of their own lives. It is also the primary means by which children practice and acquire the physical and intellectual skills that are essential for success in the culture in which they are growing. Nothing that we do, no amount of toys we buy or “quality time” or special training we give our children, can compensate for the freedom we take away. The things that children learn though their own initiatives, in free play, cannot be taught in other ways.

And as Gray points out, it is not only in schools that children have less and less freedom and hardly any time to play. Homework (which is the regime’s way of keeping parents in line, in my opinion) and extra-curricular, resume-building activities now fill our children lives after school, on weekends and all summer long. In all of those adult-directed activities, children are told what to do just about every minute and they are supervised at all times. We have lost the ability to trust children and trusting them is what we need to do. As educator John Holt said, “Nothing could be more simple, or more difficult. Difficult because to trust children we must trust ourselves, and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted.”

Meanwhile, it is the children who are suffering. As Gray writes:

WE HAVE HERE A TERRIBLE IRONY. In the name of education, we have increasingly deprived children of the time and freedom they need to educate themselves though their own means. And in the name of safety, we have deprived children of the freedom they need to develop the understanding, courage, and confidence required to face life’s dangers and challenges with equanimity. We are in a crisis that continues to grow more serious with every passing year. We have lost sight of the natural way to raise children. We have, not only in the United States but also throughout the developed world, lost sight of children’s competence. We have created a world in which children must suppress their natural instincts to take charge of their own education, and instead, mindlessly follow paths to nowhere laid out for them by adults. We have created a world that is literally driving many young people crazy and leaving many others unable to develop the confidence and skills required for adult responsibility.

Gray also offers solutions. To demonstrate how we can achieve “education” in our modern society without classes, classrooms, curriculums, or testing, Gray uses Sudbury Valley School as a model. SVS, located near Boston, has been in operation since 1968 and they currently have around 200 students. Despite the lack of formal instruction, grades, or testing, surveys of graduates show that over 75% of them pursue higher education (with no reported difficulties in being accepted or in succeeding).

At SVS, children are allowed the same freedom and rights we have as adults. They are respected as individuals and are allowed to pursue their own interests so long as they do not infringe on the rights of others in the school community. The school, the staff (they are not called “teachers”), the resources are there for the students to use as needed. Each child is 100% free to explore the world in his own way and at his own pace.

The school is also self-governing with each child and staff having a vote and being allowed to participate in the running of the school, including the voting of rules, the allocation of resources (budget), and the hiring (and firing) of staff. Rules infractions are dealt with through a Judicial committee that evaluates, investigates, and ultimately issues sentences if a party is found guilty.

In short, students at SVS, and in other Sudbury schools in the US and abroad, are enjoying life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, while learning to take responsibility for their actions, education, and lives, and learning to live as members of a democratic society.

And it works! At SVS, it has been working for 45 years, but who’s counting?

What Gray’s research also confirms, and what many parents have known all along, is that there is nothing wrong with our children. They do not need “fixing” and certainly not with drugs. We, as a society, are making our kids miserable, anxious, depressed, and stressed, drugging some of them so they can get through their day, for no benefit whatsoever. What we are doing to our children through “schools” is not only unnecessary, it is cruel and becoming increasingly dangerous.

Childhood is not a disease or a mental disorder. We simply need to stop treating it like one and as parents, we need to learn to trust and respect our children as the human beings that they are.

Free to Learn is, in my opinion, the ONE book every parent should read to really understand the nature of human education (how our children learn) and how we can best facilitate our children’s natural instinct to educate themselves. This is where we need to go back to basics, not in math, reading, or sciences. And you’ll find that the answer can ultimately be found in one little word: