Why We Take Credit for Children

As I prepared the manuscript for my book, I revisited some of John Holt’s writings. Holt taught in private schools for many years before writing his first book, How Children Fail. He wrote nine books total and initially advocated for school reform. He became disenchanted with the idea of reform and began to write about how and where children could learn without school.

In one section of How Children Fail, Holt writes about his interactions with a mother and makes the general statement that adults are typically not interested when children do things well without being made to because we then cannot give ourselves most of the credit for their accomplishments.

He goes on to say: Children sense this attitude. They resent it, and they are right to resent it. By what right do we assume that there is nothing good in children except what we put there? This view is condescending and presumptuous. More important, it is untrue, and blinds us to the fact that in our clumsy and ignorant efforts to mold the character of children we probably destroy at least as many good qualities as we develop, do at least as much harm as good. (p. 161)

When I read this statement, it stopped me in my tracks. I had to reread it more than once. It made me intensely uncomfortable. Despite the fact that I might fool myself into believing I am not like this, Holt hit too close to home. I had to begin the process of examining my past behaviors and current beliefs to see how this statement, that there is nothing good in children except what we put there, might live within me.

I began thinking about pride, ego and my desire (or need) to take credit for the accomplishments of the children in my life. The first child in my life often asked me to give her math problems that she can solve in her head. We do addition, subtraction, and a tiny bit of multiplication. At the time of this conversation she was 8 1/2 and I asked him if she knew what negative numbers were. He said yes, so I gave him an addition problem with a negative number, which she answered correctly.

My reaction is to get all excited and tell Rob about it. I share it with the grandparents, because they have trouble understanding our natural learning approach, as a way to prove that we are good parents.

I try not to show her how excited I am because I do not want to send the message that I am surprised by her knowledge. But the reality is I am surprised by what she knows. This is in spite of the fact that she has shown over and over that she has the ability to learn anything she wants with only occasional support from an adult (and usually only when she asks).

I have internalized the dominant paradigm that children can only learn from adults. She needs an adult to teach him things. And, I want to be able to take credit for those things.

I have even gone back through some of my writings on this website and I see strands of this attitude. There are times when I feel that I give lip service to the idea that she has taught me how to be a better parent. While at the same time, deep down, I want to take credit for the kind of person she is.

When I think about my own relationship with my parents, I know that I would feel offended if they believed that my accomplishments, or the person that I am, were solely (or mostly) the result of their parenting. I would feel diminished and disempowered.

If I am honest, I must admit that I carry this belief within me. I have trouble disconnecting my ego from my parenting. My attachment to being the reason why the children in my life are who they are, not only sets me up to take credit when it is not appropriate, but it also sets me up to be responsible for their happiness and their accomplishments.

In the end, I need to continue to challenge myself when the ego rises up and I feel the need to take credit (internally or externally) for the children in my life. Although our interactions and relationships are incredibly important, they are full human beings. I feed my own ego by taking credit for them, or perhaps away from them, and at the same time I diminish them and their power.

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