Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

The Roots of Spontaneity

Originally posted on December 22, 2012

It occurred to me that spontaneity is a natural drive that emerges when in healthy infancy and childhood kids can enjoy the innocence of feeling (1) the freedom to take it  over, to do it again and again until one “gets it”; and (2) the freedom to not feel at all ashamed to ask for help. On the other hand, when these freedoms get stifled, spontaneity declines!

Why or how does spontaneity get stifled? First, grown-ups don’t know how to sustain the key elements mentioned above because they are ignorant. These elements have not been teased out and presented explicitly. (In the same sense, parents might unintentionally feed their kids on a diet of foods that sustain them one way but leave them vitamin-deficient in another way; in an era when people didn’t know about vitamins, this ignorance caused a variety of vitamin-deficiency diseases in kids and other adults in spite of the good intentions of the parents. So mere ignorance can be a major factor in human progress.)

In stifling spontaneity, it is an intrusion of adult impatience and goal-directed-ness that stifles natural spontaneity. For example, grown-ups may arbitrarily impose time limits, justifying their behavior by saying, “We’ve no time to take it over repeatedly,” or “You should have known by now” (a really meaningless statement, if you think about it), or “You should get it right the first time” (equally mind-pickling). Kids have malleable (plastic, receptive) minds and introject—unconsciously take in whole—such statements. Subsequently, when learning didn’t proceed at an artificially accelerated pace, the kids would reproach themselves! This in turn leads to shame and inhibition.

There has also emerged a “logocentric” bias in our culture, an assumption that useful knowledge can be transmitted in words (logos) and so it should all be there in the books if one would only read them carefully enough. This is actually not true! Many skills must be learned by doing, but this simple fact is ignored by the logocentric bias. Nevertheless, this myth amplified the guilt for not “knowing how.” It feeds into the suppression of learning through trial and error, patience, and the inhibition of spontaneity. Children fear “making mistakes,” although if you think about it, that’s what childhood is for: Make lots of mistakes! Learn from them! But don’t be afraid of making the mistakes.


Another cultural norm that suppresses spontaneity is the rise of competition as the only way to play. In fact, competition is okay if it is chosen by the kid and there are also lots of non-competitive activities as alternatives. When it is imposed as the sole measure of value and applied even to kids who aren’t naturally talented in certain skills, competition as the only measure is oppressive.

Related to this is the cultural valuing of individual effort—no help from teammates. There are some activities where teamwork is valued, but many more where the message is that one should be able to do it alone. Many of these attitudes are flat wrong: Many kinds of skills and learning are best learned through collaboration, and this is insufficiently appreciated in the standard educational system.

In effect, kids’ spontaneity is inhibited through an introjected belief that one should not ask for help—which increases the fear of performance or spontaneity.

If we look at this as a systems level, the adults who maintain (if not establish) the overall system are covering up for their ignorance at not knowing how better to encourage learning in children. (Montessori Schooling serves as an example where this is at least partially not so: Relatively, they’re more enlightened.) In general, though, adults (parents, teachers, school administrators) avoid their own unconscious shame at not being able to do better by blaming the kids: It’s not that we’re teaching wrong; they’re not trying hard enough. There’s a germ of truth here, but it’s also a vicious circle, because inadequacy of teaching-failure-defeatism-giving up-and defiance, mischief-making or withdrawal cycles makes it harder to teach!

Instead, we need to teach more learning-by-doing approaches, relying less on book-learning. We need to recognize that certain skills depend in large part on the adjustment of the neuro-muscular skills that differ in each individual. So the details of learning cannot be anticipated; they must be encouraged as an exploratory process. Being helpful, then, is limited and is partially or largely emotional support and encouragement. Adults not knowing how to manage it completely became impatient and scolding—and this in turn again was introjected as shame: The child scolds herself: “I should have been able to do it myself, learn it on my own.  I am less of a person because I even thought of wishing that someone could help me.”

The healthy alternative to this can of worms is that of course I will help, we all need help, that’s  what family / team / friends are for! I can’t do it for you, you need to work out how it works for your body, but I can do it with you and encourage you. We all need that.  Something in that spirit needs to pervade our 3 – 7 year-pedagogy and child-care philosophy.

Kids get egocentric and unconsciously, not too sadistically cruel. When that happens, they need to hear the following three messages: That isn’t okay, I know you can do better, and I’ll help you learn a better way. There is room for redirection. Scolding and humiliating easily goes into emotional overload and the resulting manifestations of externalized humiliation.

All this relates back to the need to remain free to proceed at one’s own pace, experimenting and  mastering; the freedom to take it over; the freedom to access loving support. All these are implicit in the natural process of playful exploration. It’s playful because it is natural and exploratory, and operates within a context of emotional safety—even enjoyment. What could be not fun about that?

In summary, play, exploration, improvisation, inner and interpersonal freedom, safety, mutual enjoyment, all are closely related to spontaneity and all should be cultivated together.

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