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Monday- From the Archives: Interview with Lillian Firestone on The Forgotten Language of Children

Lillian image

Welcome to Monday from the Archives: each Monday, something from the archives of Mary Rothschild: interviews, articles, insights. Today, the audio and transcript of an interview with author Lillian Firestone about her book The Forgotten Language of Children: A Journey in Living Authentically, originally aired on Brattleboro Community Radio in Vermont on October 18, 2011.  Enjoy!

Mary Rothschild: Today, my guest is Lillian Firestone. Among other things, Lillian is the author of The Forgotten Language of Children: A Journey in Living Authentically. n her introduction, Lillian Firestone says:

“Libraries abound with books about spiritual search. Much less is known about how to raise children to discover their own qualities and the courage to live by them. This was the challenge that we faced, a small group of adults who were invited to start a work with children in the early 1960’s in New York City. The children’s team, which became the basis of my life or the next twenty years, was based on the ideas of George Gurdjieff. Our challenge was to bring children a spiritual experience of life without indoctrinating them into a particular teaching.”

She begins now by letting us know a little bit about Gurdjieff.

L. F.: Gurdjieff was a very interesting figure. His father was Greek. His mother was Armenian. He appeared in European in about 1914 with an idea that was completely revolutionary at the time; and that was that people were capable of different stages of consciousness and that everything depended on a person’s level of consciousness at the moment that he was speaking or acting. I think this is pretty widely accepted now, but at the time it was considered quite surprising, quite daring. Gurdjieff had been trained in various esoteric schools throughout the East.

He was influenced by the Sufis, perhaps by the Essenes and many other spiritual teachings. I think he saw his work as a synthesis of spiritual teaching in a way that would be suitable for the 21st century, stripped of its so-to-say religious trappings and reduced to its essential truths, that is: man’s search for meaning, man’s search for himself and, as I said, the possibility of different states of consciousness in which a person could act with more intention, free of their habits, free of their slavery. So, very briefly, that is an idea of what Mr. Gurdjieff’s teaching was about. You know, the saying from the Greek: “Know thyself,” What does it mean, “Know thyself?” What self is it that I’m supposed to know? Is it my personality? Is it the way that I react with the world? Is it my deepest inner self? This is the kind of search that a human being should make.

M. R.: I really appreciate the emphasis throughout this book, not only on the voices of the people who were children during this period when you were working with the children’s work, but also your own struggles and this element of you being in the moment with a child, being in question with a child is something that I feel is essential to all of the alternatives to the juggernaut of the popular culture. In our work with Healthy Media Choices, we work not only directly with media, but we try to step back and say: “What are the joyful, difficult alternatives? How can we demand more of ourselves in the presence of children?”

The kind of thing we hear is “I have to make dinner, so the child watches television,” or that a child plays a video game during dinner. How to bring the idea that being alongside that child who is doing something age=appropriate with a carrot and feels that they are contributing to the family is a practical, everyday situation that I feel this book can illuminate for people. This is a chronicle of a certain kind of very intentional work that happened at a particular period in time and continues today, but the underlying work you speak of is something that I thin will touch any parent or teacher as something they know they can try: to be in the moment with children.

L.F.: Two things I feel I’d like to respond to: How I came to this work myself and what is the reason that this is a practical work with children? My own family background wasn’t ideal. My mother was very difficult. I had a very difficult childhood. I was determined not to repeat my difficult childhood in my life with my children. But I saw that habit was very strong and, despite myself, I was turning into my mother and I desperately wanted that not to happen. So, the question is: how to put a spoke in that wheel of habit? How not to repeat things that were experienced in our own childhood that we’re not even aware that we’re repeating because that’s simply the template that’s been laid down? Well, the technique, if you will, the method that we were given was to try to question, moment-by-moment what we were doing, what we were saying. What was our tone of voice, what was our body posture? How were we actually relating to the children? This could be quite shocking, because when I heard my own voice, it could be quite different from what I imagined it to be. The other aspect is how to lure the children, as it were, away from the TV and the video. I think the answer to that is: innately, children have a great desire to be related to us. They really want that passionately. They want that more than anything, for a time. And, of course, this weakens as they get older, but it is always there, they always want the relationship. It’s just that, as they get older and they get to be teenagers, there are so many obstacles. There are so many habits of thought and feeling that act as a barrier between that relationship between ourselves and our children, which both of us want. So, in a way we could find ways to make it possible to have that relationship with the children again, which they want, to be included in our real lives and for us to include them. Certanly, one of the ways to do that is to work side-by-side with the children, always. Instead of saying: ”You – go to such-and-such,” we say:” Let’s us do such-and-such. let’s , together – fill in the blanks – bake cookies, wash the dishes, build a bird house.“

This is quite different. If you send a child away to do something by himself, it is one kind of activity, but if you propose a shared activity, it is something different. And, you have to try it out to see if what I say is really true.

M. R.: What would you say are some of the other important things from your work with children that you’d want to share with parents and those who work with children?

L. F.: All parents, absolutely all, want the best for their children. Everyone wishes for their children’s wellbeing and welfare. So, how do we bring this about? We feel we have to train the children to prepare them for life. We have to make sure they know how to act with other people and in other situations so that life will go decently for them. The thing we tend to lose sight of is our relationship with the child at the moment we are giving the instruction or the order. As we were told over and over, the relationship is the most important thing. From the relationship, the child will want to do the right thing; the child will want to do the thing that promotes his growth. But if there’s no relationship, it leaves the child isolated and maybe even rebellious because he or she feels disconnected and alone. So, we were encouraged always to come back to the question: What is the relationship? and make that the most important thing in the moment; to be sensitive to where the child was in the moment and to include that in our understanding.

M. R.: I’m remembering an incident you relate. Everyone else was going swimming and you had been left to do some sorting of the children’s clothes and something happened with a child around discipline. Can you share that with us, as an illustration?

L. F.: That was a very interesting moment. I had been left to sort the children’s laundry. I had spent hours doing that while all the children were swimming. When they came back, they found out that I had put all their laundry back in their suitcases, but they had exchanged tee shirt with each other as a sign of friendship. So, one of the boys, a very smart-alecky boy, began to make fun of me and to mimic me. I was furious. I was hot and sweaty and as angry as I could be. So, I ordered him outside. We went outside and then I suddenly realized I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to yell at him, but I knew it would have no effect at all, it would slide right off him and that this was his way. He always made fun of the adults. That was his way of having stature among the other boys. He was the smart aleck.

So, I was really stumped because I saw that any impulse I had towards correcting him or punishing him was completely automatic and would be completely useless. Finally out of sheer frustration I just sat down on the grass. I asked him to sit down and I said to him: “Look, let’s try to figure this out together, because I can’t figure it out by myself. “ That was just the simple truth. I said: “You’re doing what you’re doing because you can’t help it. You make fun of me because that’s your habit and I get mad and yell at you because I can’t help it, because that’s what I do. And I’m caught in my habit just the same way that you’re caught in yours. Then we were both silent for a couple of minutes because this really was the truth and the truth has a power that nothing else has. So then he turned to me and he said: “Well, what should we do?” and I said: “I don’t know. I don’t know what we should do.” And he said: “Well, how can we be different?” And I said,” You know, it’s not about pretending to be different or acting like somebody else, it’s about trying to understand: “What is the truth right now?” So we were both quiet and I said: “You know, when we go back inside, the other children will expect you to start cutting up and clowning like you always do and they’ll expect me to be mad and yelling like I always do.” I said: “Let’s just not do that.” He said: “Well, what should we do?” I said: “I don’t know; something different, just not what you always do.” So, we went back inside and he was so self-contained and sort of noble with the other children. He didn’t make fun of anything; he just acted like a grown-up man. I was so touched because he had understood that he was a slave of his habits, just as much as I was, and he didn’t want to be. though he was a little kid, he wanted to be free of his habits. It’s really extraordinary. If you give children respect, if you speak to them straight, how much they can understand. They understand as much as we do. What it requires on our part is the sense that we are talking to intelligent beings. We’re not talking to little, dumb people. We’re talking to sentient beings who are smaller in size than we are, but who are also struggling to discover the meaning of their lives. So, they’re happy if we give them some kind of a real clue and they just bear it if we rant on and on in our usual way; they learn to space out and just bear it and wait for it to stop.

M. R.: One of the aspects that I see in parent life today is the aspect of fear. There is so much fear around the children’s safety, around their development, their schooling and around parenting. In reading this book, I felt that the kind of trust shown to the children and letting them try and fail is an important message for parents. When the media tells us about anything that happens to a child, no matter where it is, there is an atmosphere of fear and protectiveness that sometimes goes against the child being free to experiment.

L. F.: It’s true. We see that it is absolutely essential to respect who the child is. Do we show the child that respect? Do we respect him as another human being? Do we speak to our own children with the same respect we would show to a friend or a comrade? Do we trust the child? Do we trust that the child is capable of working? We have to give the child opportunities to experiment, to make mistakes in small, practical ways. The child needs to learn to cook, to do carpentry, wash clothes, and to sew, all the practical aspects of life. This will give them a feeling of confidence and will enable them to face life with confidence. How to do this with a child – not as “we,” on a higher level, reaching down from our superior height to these ignorant little beings and not exactly on the same level, because we’re not, we’re older. But, how to share a work with the children that would give them also a place and an opportunity? How to accept their work, even though it may not measure up to what an adult would do? I think this is very important. Every Sunday when we worked with children, a team of children would prepare the lunch. Maybe the captain would be 13 or 14 and the youngest would be 7 or 8. Four or five of them together would make the lunch. Sometimes lunch was tasty and sometimes it was barely edible, but we had a principle: we never commented on the food. We didn’t say: “This was wonderful” or “This was terrible.” We just simply accepted it. It was a given. This was the lunch. We ate it. The children were proud of that. They were proud that their work was accepted. They also had judgment. They knew when something didn’t turn out well. They themselves found the sand in the spinach and if the pie crusts were tough. But it wasn’t the adults criticizing them. It was giving the children the chance to try things on their own and we would stand by the results, no matter what they were. Because our principle was to encourage the effort and not to be so concerned with the outcome: to praise the process, to encourage the process. And, the outcome would be whatever the outcome would be. So the older children became more skillful, they younger ones were maybe less so. Everyone tried and we supported the trying. The result was very interesting. The older children had a kind of confidence in themselves that was quite remarkable. They weren’t always looking to others to approve of them. They felt that what they did and who they were had validity in its own right. Some of our “alumni” children have gone on to incredible success, some just have interesting, full lives . I think all of them share this capacity for living more fully and of not being afraid to try new things.

One of the principles we learned from Mr. Gurdjieff was to try something new with the children every year. So, if one year everyone together learned silk screening, the next year everyone together learned how to work with leather or learned carpentry or made a quilt. The adults as well as the children had to learn new things. It wasn’t us teaching them it was us learning together. This created a relationship between the adults and the children that was exactly right. It was full of respect on both sides. They respected that we were the older ones who were able to bring them these opportunities. We respected the fact that they were capable.

M. R.: In terms of practical application for a parent, there is something demanded of the adult. The result of making dinner alongside a child may be less perfect. It may certainly take longer. We need to be in question about our priorities.

L. F.: Even making dinner, it would be very quick and automatic for the adult to say: “Chop the onions” or “Chop the string beans” or “Do this” or “Do that.” Maybe that’s not the way to call the child. Maybe, a better way to call the child would be: “I’m going to make the chicken. What do you think would be a good side dish to go with the chicken?” or “What’s a vegetable you really like with the chicken? Oh, string beans? Would you like to make the string beans?” or “Would you like to make the side dish?” or “What would you like to make to contribute to the dinner?” Then, whatever the child says, accept it; even if it’s not what you expected. Even I it’s not what you planned. Say “Yes” to it because you encourage the child to go further. If whatever he or she brings is met with criticism, they very quickly withdraw and retreat. They learn not to volunteer because they don’t want to be rejected.

We tried to listen carefully. What came from the child? What little impulse could you hear of something that interested the child? Build on that. Support that. I think this is the way to lure children away from the video and the TV: something that’s more interesting, that comes from them.

M.R.: And is in relationship, alongside.

L. F.: Yes, I you simply order a child to help you or to do something, don’t be surprised if they refuse. Because, how would you eel I someone simply ordered you to do something? It wouldn’t interest you very much. But if somebody asked you: “What could you contribute? What is your favorite thing? What would you like to add to the dinner?” That might interest you. That might bring you into the process.

M. R.: That goes for so many ways a child can contribute to the household: the chores, washing the floor. You give an illustration of a child washing a floor so carefully that finally the adult who was there lost patience and said: “It really is good enough!” The child had become so involved in this simple househod task and wanting to do it well. In a test-driven society, to have that impulse for precision come from the child is precious. It’s a wonderful antidote.

L. F.: I want to tell you about chocolate chip cookies. You want the child to be interested in cooking or helping in the kitchen. Sometimes, they’re willing to come and make cookies. Many children are interested to make chocolate chip cookies. Let them make chocolate chip cookies. It’s as good a way o connecting them to the kitchen as any other. They could make chocolate chip cookies every couple of days for a year and never do anything different. At the end of the year, they would have the confidence to try something else. I know a young boy who made chocolate chip cookies. That’s all he wanted to make (during days we worked together) over and over. It was a very simple recipe, mixing two or three things. At the end of the year, suddenly he was willing to try and cook anything. It took him that long to have the confidence. We don’t know what is going on in the child. We don’t need to know. Let them determine the rate of their own understanding. Watch. Listen to them. Follow their lead.

M. R.: This is so important: to not invade the child’s space. To not think we have to know what they are going through; to allow them to have the integrity of their own process. With all this worry comes a sense in the adult of needing to know and micro managing the child, which is deadly to the process you’re talking about.

L. F.: It depends on what you want for your children. What is our aim? Do we want them to be independent, self sufficient, to a degree, beings? Or, do we want them always dependent on some outside authority? How we treat them is going to really shape how they feel about themselves, whether they trust themselves. I think one of the ways to help them develop their confidence in their own judgment is to allow them to make choices; to always give children a choice (granted, among choices that are acceptable) and then allow them the dignity of their own choice. Why do we have to dictate all the details o their lives? We don’t have to. They can decide what they want to wear to school, whether they want to walk or take the bus, bike or skateboard. There are a thousand decisions that we could allow children to make that would gradually strengthen their sense of judgment. When they make a mistake, they themselves know that that outcome was not desirable. Next time, they won’t do it that way. They’ll do something different.

M. R.: This points to one of the things you point to as a principle: allow freedom before it’s demanded.

L. F.: Yes. I remember I tried, from the time my daughter was very little, to always give her choices. Like, in the morning: “Do you want to wear this outfit or that?” “Do you want the pink socks or the blue socks?” Just let her choose, over and over and over. She made the choice, she made the choice, she made the choice. By the time she was a teenager, she was quite confident in her ability.

M. R.: It does, in my experience, require a degree of restraint to do that, because the child can leave the house in an assortment of clothes that one would never choose and you have to be willing to allow that. At times, with one of my daughters, I remember arranging the drawers so that she had a choice but it was within a certain realm of reasonableness. I really couldn’t take it.

You mention creating big events. Can you elaborate?

L. F.: If you are working with a group, a parents group or scouting group, or instance, you can create events on a large scale. You can have big parties, circuses. You can give dinners. Children love working on big things. You can give plays. This is something that is within the parameter of any group of children. They love to put on plays. You prepare a play. You have your audience. You charge admission or you give out free tickets and you have an event. The children can prepare refreshments to give out afterwards. It becomes more than a personal effort. It becomes something on another scale. And they see, the children have the experience, that thy can do something on a big scale; that they can have an effect in the world. I think this has a subtle long-range seed in them that when they grow up they’ll be able to act on a bigger scale, if they wish, not just within the realm of their own family or their own school.

M. R.: You call these big events “special conditions.” You say “we realized we were the special condition.” Still, it came down to the attention and the common questioning from the adults. It still comes back to being in it together.

L. F.: Even adults who are not very aware of what they are doing, who are just well meaning when they work with the children- the children tend to be grateful for that. If they help the children put on a play or work with a sports team – anything, children are grateful that they are supported in some activity. The worst thing we do to the children is assign them to the TV, turn our backs on them and let them spend their childhoods watching videos. They need to be part of the adult world. They need interaction with the adults and, if they don’t have it, they simply go of into a world o their own, which is not necessarily of the same caliber.

M. R.: It’s not just a world of their own, it’s a world influenced by a lot of imagery which, even if it’s not overtly offensive, interrupts and mediates their own immediate experience. I’ve worked with young children and saw how these images would interfere with their simple efforts. They would start talking about these images are so strong – they are floating in their heads and they are trying to figure them out – and it interrupts their ability to just be in their bodies in the moment – at a very early age.

L. F.: Absolutely.

M. R.: Is there something we haven’t touched on that you’d like to share?

L. F.: Well, fundamentally, this kind of work is too difficult to do alone. One parent and one child may find themselves in too much of a pressure cooker, focused on each other in a way that doesn’t give enough of an independent viewpoint, I would say. I think people need to work together. Adults need to work together, to gather together to make teams, form clubs –whatever- where they can work with groups of children: two, three, four or five and have activities that include more than just their own children. I think they’d find that very beneficial. Then, they could share questions with the other adults. The objectivity of the other adults is something very precious, if we can bear to hear it.

M. R.: Very difficult to be objective about your own child.

L. F.: And very difficult to accept that somebody else might have a different view of your parenting and your child than you do, because we’re so protective of our image of ourselves and our image of our children. Despite that, it is very useful to try to open up the picture and be part of something larger. I would advise any parent to join with other parents and try to create activities for children, whether it’s camping or traveling or exploring or bicycle riding or building something.

M. R.: You communicate very well the joy in doing that.

L. F.: The energy of children is still so positive and so easily summoned. They’re eager to do things. They accept new things much more so than adults. If you say to children: “Let’s go here or there,” they’ll say “Let’s go!” They don’t begin to make objections: “It’s too far. It’s too difficult,” the way adults would. So, it’s very joyful thing to work with children. You have that energy always at your disposal.

M. R.: If a child senses that you’re really trying yourself. You may be telling a story and leave a whole character out and have to go back. They forgive.

L. F.: They forgive. Children are very forgiving.




One thought on “Monday- From the Archives: Interview with Lillian Firestone on The Forgotten Language of Children

  1. How wonderful to hear your talk Mary! I’m so inspired. My daughter just gave birth to her first child, my first grand-child, and this issue is so overwhelming in the cultural environment we’re in. I will re-visit this ….and share.

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