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How to make a human
Unconditional positive regard, AKA “Agape.”
In the 1980s and 90s, due to a political-humanitarian crisis, there were more children in Romania than families could afford to feed.
So, the Romanian government set up orphanages. The kids were given enough food to eat, adequate heat, toys to play with, and a soft place to sleep.
And yet, to people's surprise and heartbreak, the children developed extreme social, emotional, and cognitive deficits. In some cases, the children even died — seemingly without cause.
Despite having all the "correct" nourishments, something was missing from these children’s lives. Children whose basic material needs were met needed something beyond that. Something like love.
Without love, you can't make a human.
You can’t assemble children
Anyone who has known a kid automatically understands that kids need attention, care, and guidance beyond the bare necessities. It’s so obvious that this could seem trite.
But there is something important we need to take understand.
What exactly is “love” doing in the development of a child? If we understand that, we will be forced to change the way we think about education.
Cognitive Scientist John Vervaeke offers the Greek word "agape" as a more precise definition. "Love" is so muddled in English that it no longer helps us understand the true mechanism.
Agape is unconditional. It is not born of desire or exchange. We see it most often between a parent and a child, but just about everyone has felt it toward someone in their life. It’s a real category of expression recognized by scientists – not just fluffy language.
According to Vervaeke, the force that makes a bundle of cells into a human is agapic love from caretakers. The love you feel as a child isn’t just to cultivate “positive emotions.” It is a fundamental cognitive force that lays the bedrock from which you learn and do everything else.
Even for you reading this now, the thing that allows you to function as a normal human being is the love you received from your parents or caregiver or anyone who gave you their attention in your formative years. If you hadn’t, you would have been like the Romanian orphans. Receiving love wasn’t just nice. It was what made you, you. It’s what gave you the will to live. Of all the things you could have become, the love and attention your caregivers gave helped you formulate what was important to you, and that force still plays a role in who you are today. Of course, we’ve all felt the sting of neglect and trauma (some more than others) – but the pain of its absence merely highlights how important it is to receive.
Carl Rogers, the groundbreaking developmental psychologist, called it "unconditional positive regard.” He shows us more practically, in key childhood studies, how important this force is for the proper development of humans. With too little of it, kids do not grow up to be happy and fulfilled. Without it, kids don’t grow up at all.
Again, this all may seem obvious. Of course, kids can’t thrive without love. But it’s important to drill down on this particularity: love can’t be broken down into its component parts.
You can hypothesize, for example, that love drives you to feed, clothe, and tutor your child. But if you try to do each of those things without the seemingly mythical love, the child will still fail to thrive. The child needs the whole sense of love – something that cannot be faked or productized.
Love is a real and measurable psychological phenomenon – one humanity wouldn’t exist without. But, like a frog, it stops living when you dissect it.
If that’s the case, why do we ship most kids off to impersonal buildings where they focus on getting high grades and learning hyper-specific subjects one at a time – and, in many cases, receive almost no “agape” for most of the day?
Are we doing something similar (to a lesser degree) to what Romanians did to their orphans?
School sucks (measurably)
The school system was set up to quickly train factory workers to be able to do very specific tasks. Today, it also functions as a daycare while parents go to work.
Understandably, kids do not like these ugly and loveless places. They complain bitterly about having to go to school.
But, kids' hatred of school is often seen as immature, a lack of discipline. Something they (hopefully) learn to grow out of.
But what if they are expressing the pain of the lack of "agape" they are receiving during their hours in the school system?
We're not saying the impersonal school system is nearly as bleak as the Romanian orphanages of the 90s. But what if, rather than being a categorical difference, it's a difference in degree?
What if the pain children feel of "school sucks" is a cry for more of the human-making agape — and we've been trained as a culture to brush this off as whining that must be toughed out?
What if, with lost hours of agape, they are less able to live up to their full potential as human beings?
Mental health among teenagers is alarming. Indeed, it is as bad as it's ever been.
Most people jump to the conclusion that it must be phones and social media. There are many studies linking technology to depression and anxiety. But, what if we’ve got the cause and effect mixed up? What if the phones are just an outlet for the pain kids feel because of their detachment from their homes and communities?
Lab rats, left alone in a cage, will take cocaine until they die of an overdose. But if they are given a fun environment, full of toys and other rats to play with, they will try the cocaine once and rarely return to it.
In this comparison, social media is the drug, and the school system is the cage.
If we give kids community, purpose, and play, they won't be nearly as interested in escaping with social media (or actual drugs, for that matter). They will be more interested in their communities and their curiosities.
It's frustrating that we sit around scratching our heads, asking, "What's wrong with the kids?" when the answer seems to be staring us in the face.
Flowers in concrete
Undeniably, some individuals have navigated through the standard school system and emerged successful.
These are the students who, despite the system’s pitfalls, managed to tap into their innate abilities, hone their skills, and craft a successful career path for themselves. They are the individuals who fostered strong relationships with good teachers, or perhaps they found solace in specific subjects that sparked their curiosity and passion.
These success stories are often a testament to the resilience of the human spirit, rather than a reflection of the efficacy of the system. These students thrived not because of the system, but despite it.
The institutional education system was modeled after a factory. And just because, occasionally, flowers managed to break through the cracks of the concrete floors doesn’t mean we should praise the factory.
Instead, we should try to cultivate a garden.
How to make a human
Parents, close relatives, and community members are the ones who understand a child's needs, interests, and potential best.
They are the ones who have the highest investment in the child’s future and hence, are most likely to take decisions that prioritize the child's wellbeing over all else.
Children thrive in environments where they feel loved, understood, and supported. When parents are actively involved in their children's educations, children perform better academically, exhibit more positive attitudes and behavior, and feel more confident in their schoolwork. A 2015 study by the Gates Foundation and RAND Corporation demonstrated that students who received personalized learning support outperformed their peers in mathematics and reading over a two-year period.
It’s not about making parents into professors or living rooms into classrooms. It's about creating an environment where education is a natural part of everyday life. Paying attention to your child’s curious questions at the grocery store is often more powerful than a semester’s worth of math class.
Our ideas of education need to evolve. It shouldn't be rigid schedules or standardized tests. It should be about questioning, exploring, playing, and discovering.
Take inspiration from Plato's Academy, which was not a school building as we know it today, but a public grove of trees outside of Athens where students came to learn. Each student, akin to each plant in a garden, was valued for their unique potential. The goal wasn't to enforce uniformity but to nurture individual growth. This is an essential idea that we can apply in modern education.
The job of the educator is to create conditions for growth and respect the individuality of each "plant." Education should be more like gardening, less like an assembly-line production. It's a shift from focusing on the curriculum to focusing on the child.
It’s time parents reclaim this role. “Experts” should not gatekeep how we make humans.
In the same way, our role as educators should be to create the conditions for each child to flourish, respecting their individuality and nurturing their unique potential.
School promises to make humans by refining each of the parts, one at a time, cobbling us together like factory products. And yet, the only force that makes humans is holistic agape, the tender hand of the gardener who guides a child’s growth.
We so easily forget that children don’t thrive because they got into a great school or they have the most advanced education tools. They thrive in proportion to how much “agape” they receive. Often, the people who are best at giving that attention are not the most “qualified” people. They are just the ones who care the most.
Let’s learn the right lessons from the tragedy in Romania.
It’s time parents take power back.
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