Peter Gray: Part 2 of an interview by Bob Morris

Gray, PeterPeter Gray, research professor of psychology at Boston College, has conducted and published research in a wide range of fields, including neuroendocrinology, animal behavior, developmental psychology, anthropology, and education. He is author of a highly regarded college textbook, Psychology (Worth Publishers), now in its 6th edition. Most of his recent research and writing has to do with the value of free, unsupervised play for children’s healthy social, emotional, and intellectual development. He has expanded on these ideas extensively, for the general public, in his recently-published book, Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life (Basic Books, 2013)– He also authors a regular blog for Psychology Today magazine.

Peter grew up mostly in small towns in Minnesota and Wisconsin, where he had a rich childhood play life, which, he believes, prepared him well for adulthood. He did his undergraduate study at Columbia University and then earned a Ph.D. in biological sciences at the Rockefeller University, in New York City. His career since then has been centered entirely at Boston College. His play life continues, not only in the joy he derives from research and writing, but also in his enjoyment of long-distance bicycling, kayaking, backwoods skiing, pond skating, and backyard vegetable gardening.

Here is my interview of him.

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Morris: Here’s a question I have been eager to ask since first reading your discussion of various parenting behavior types in Free to Learn. Are you talking about a pattern or does the given situation determine which style would be most appropriate? That is, sometimes trust, other times control, and still other times protect children.

Gray: I am talking about patterns of parenting, but the patterns are not all-or-none. Even hunter-gatherers—the superstars of trustful parenting—engaged in some directive-protective parenting when they put the poison darts they use for hunting high up, out of reach of little children, and warned all children about the dangers of touching them. All loving parents feel responsible for their children’s welfare, and there is always some tradeoff between protection and allowing children to learn about dangers by exploring them. Even the domineering style of parenting is necessary in moments of emergency. If a little child is running out into the street—or, for a hunter-gatherer, is about to reach out and touch a poisonous snake–you use your superior strength to pull him away; that’s not the time to reason with the child or let the child learn through trial and error.

Morris: How do you explain the decline in trustful parenting?

It declined after the advent of agriculture for the reasons I’ve already given. In the United States and other Western nations trustful parenting began to rise again early in the twentieth century and then began to decline later in that century. I elaborate in the book on the reasons for this second decline. In brief, I think this decline has occurred because (a) the increasing demands of school and the expectation that parents must force their children to meet those demands make trustful parenting difficult; (b) increased media attention to the dangers that can befall children when not supervised has led to irrational levels of fear among parents; (c) the rise of experts, who are continuously warning parents of dangers to children, has also led to irrational levels of fear; (d) as families have become smaller and family and neighborhood ties weaker, many people today have had little experience with children before they have children of their own, so they have lost touch with the common-sense understanding that parents used to have about children’s abilities and resilience and need for freedom; and (f) as women have entered the workforce, so nobody is home during the day, it has become harder for neighbors to get to know one another and one another’s children, and there are often no adults at home looking out of windows, which may in fact make free outdoor play less safe than it was in the past.

Morris: What can a parent do to become more trusting?

Gray: The process can start by examining one’s own values. What do you want for your child? Do you want your child to grow up feeling confident, responsible, and in control, or do you want your child to grow up feeling that the world is dangerous and that he or she is a victim of circumstances? It can also start with serious thought about risks and probabilities. If you let your 8-year-old walk by herself to the grocery store a few blocks away there is a chance that something terrible will happen to her along the way. On the other hand, if you drive her there, there is also a chance that something terrible will happen, in the form of an automobile accident. Both risks are tiny. If you regularly deprive her of the chance to do things by herself, the chance is very high that she will not develop the courage and capacity to handle difficult situations by herself, and in the long run that puts the child in more or less continuous danger.

Every decision that you make for your child, or that your child makes for himself or herself, involves some risk. That’s a fact of life. Thought along these lines can help parents realize that their decisions aimed at protecting their children may, in the long run, be creating more danger than would occur if the children were freer to make their own decisions.

To be a trustful parent it may also be necessary to find a good alternative to standard schooling. Our schools have become places where children are least trusted, where they are constantly monitored and directed and deprived of basic human rights; and, more and more, schools are demanding that parents assist the school in such distrustful behavior, for example by monitoring homework every night. Each year, more and more people are taking their children out of school for some sort of alternative schooling or for a variety of home education where the children have more freedom and can take more responsibility for themselves. Many parents see this as a crucial step toward trustful parenting. I also describe, in the book, ways that parents can create safe opportunities for children to play and explore independently of adults.

Morris: Opinions are divided, sometimes sharply divided, about this next issue: The nature and extent of influence (for better or worse) that peers have on a child’s development. Some people insist that peers have a greater influence than do parents; others argue the opposite. What do you think?

The answer to this, as you might expect, depends on the kind of influence you are talking about and on the life situation of the child and family. In hunter-gatherer bands, and at the democratic school that I have studied, children spend their days playing in age-mixed groups. Younger children learn skills and acquire advanced ideas from older ones, and older children learn how to be caring and nurturing through their interactions with younger ones.

From an evolutionary perspective it is natural that children should be more oriented toward their peers than toward their parents or other adults. Their peers are the people of their own generation; they are their future mates and work colleagues. Parents are often disappointed that their children seem to be more interested in conforming to their peers than in following the traditions of the family. For example, in immigrant families, children quickly learn the language of their new peers and, when possible, refrain from speaking the language of their parents. But this is as it should be. To survive and thrive, children must adapt to the culture of now, not to the old ways of their parents. This also explains why children and teenagers are always the first to embrace any new technology. They learn it from their peers, not from their parents. The parents, if they learn it at all, learn it from their children.

On the other hand, there is a great deal of evidence that children tend, on average, to acquire and retain the religious and political views of their parents. This may be because these are often not relevant to the child’s experiences with other children. Where they are relevant, such as in the case of a child of orthodox parents living in a non-orthodox community, children commonly rebel against their parents’ views.

Parents are very important to children for the secure base and love they provide, but they are not and should not be the sole or even the major source for the child’s learning. The child is naturally motivated to learn from everyone and is especially motivated to look outside of the home to find out what others are doing and thinking and talking about.

Morris: You devote a great deal of attention to Sudbury Valley School, characterizing it as in some ways like a hunter-gatherer band. Please explain.

Gray: Sudbury Valley is a day school with about 150 students, who range in age from 4 to about 18, and currently 10 adult staff members. The school is fundamentally a democratic community, run by the students and staff together. All school rules and major school decisions are made by the School Meeting, at which each student and staff member has one vote. Rules are enforced by a Judicial Committee, which operates like a jury in our larger culture to determine guilt or innocence and decide on appropriate sentences. This committee at any given time includes one staff member and at least one representative of each broad age group of students a the school.

The educational philosophy of the school is essentially the same as that of a hunter-gatherer band. The students are free to play and explore, as they wish, all day long, every day, as long as they don’t break any of the democratically made rules. The rules serve to prevent students and staff from interfering with one another’s activities or damaging the school in any way. Students are not segregated by age or assigned to specific places. They are free at any time to go anywhere in the two school buildings and the 10-acre grounds, and, by signing out and following safety guidelines, they can also go into the adjoining forested state park. Sometimes a group of students will ask a staff member to help them organize a class on some topic, but classes are rare and are never required. Equipment is available for a wide variety of activities. There are plenty of computers, lots of books, a fully equipped kitchen, a woodworking shop, sound-proof music practice rooms, an art room, sporting equipment, a room with toys for younger kids, and so on. The students can use any of this equipment as they wish, as long as they demonstrate that they can use it safely and not damage it.

Many people who hear about this school can’t imagine that students would become educated in this setting. They are “just playing” or “just hanging out and talking with one another.” But if you look closely at what they are playing at and listen closely to what they are talking about, you may be amazed. On their own initiatives, they are involved in extraordinarily sophisticated, complex activities. In their play they learn to read, write, and use numbers. They also discover their passions through play and become experts in the activities that most interest them.

The school has been in existence for 45 years and has hundreds of graduates. One of my first studies of the school was a follow-up survey of the graduates, which showed that they have no particular difficulty pursuing higher education, if they wish, and that, as a group, they have gone on to the full range of careers that we value in our society. In many cases the careers they pursue follow quite directly from the interests they had develop in their play at the school.

I think the school works because it is, for our time and place, an educational setting equivalent to a hunter-gatherer band. Like a hunter-gatherer band, the school provides the conditions that optimize young people’s abilities to educate themselves. These include (1) the social expectation (and reality) that education is the students’ responsibility, not the staff’s; (2) unlimited freedom for students to play, explore, and pursue their own interests; (3) opportunity to play with the tools of the culture; (4) access to a variety of caring adults, who are helpers, not judges, (5) free age mixing among children and adolescents, and (6) immersion in a stable, moral, democratic community. In the book I explain how each of these characteristics contributes to children’s abilities to educate themselves. I devote a whole chapter to age mixing, because I think that is especially crucial. Young children learn advanced skills and knowledge through interacting with older ones, and older ones acquire a sense of maturity and an ability to nurture through interacting with younger ones. The school would not work if the students were segregated by age.

It is interesting to note that none of these six conditions are present in our standard schools. In standard schools we deprive students of all of the conditions they need in order to educate themselves effectively, and then we try to make them learn a curriculum that we, not they, have chosen.

Morris: What lessons can be learned from this school?

Gray: There are many lessons, but the most central one is that children’s instincts to educate themselves, which came about by natural selection in hunter-gatherer times, can still function beautifully in our culture today, if we provide appropriate conditions. It is interesting to note that it is much easier and less expensive to provide these conditions than it is to operate our standard prison-like schools. The per-pupil cost at Sudbury Valley—and at the roughly three-dozen schools modeled after Sudbury Valley—is about half that of the local public schools. Another lesson, of course, is that education can be joyful. The students at Sudbury Valley hate vacations and look forward every year to the start of school. Childhood is meant to be a time of joyful learning. In hunter-gatherer bands and at Sudbury Valley it is just that.

Morris: What is the single greatest barrier to applying those lessons effectively elsewhere, where they can be of greatest benefit?

Gray: The greatest barrier by far is public opinion. We have now had compulsory education of the standard type for so long that most people can’t imagine children becoming educated without it. There is also much vested interest in maintaining the status quo, and one lesson that schools are very effective at teaching is that people need schooling—and ever more of it—in order to learn.

Morris: How best to avoid or overcome that barrier?

Gray: I don’t think that the school system can change from within. The change will come as more and more people drop out of it. In recent years there has been an accelerating trend for parents to remove their children from standard schools—for homeschooling, unschooling (self-directed home education), and, to a lesser degree, democratic schools such as Sudbury Valley. At some point everyone will know somebody who has become well educated without standard schooling, and that will be the tipping point, at which masses of people will leave. Then there will be a big voting block to spend public funds to provide educational opportunities for everyone, not compulsory (forced) education.

Morris: I agree with you about the evils of coercive education but I also believe in the importance of order and structure, of having rules and regulations that encourage civility. The best teachers I had in school, college, and graduate school as well as the best bosses I have had since then were very strict but fair, really knew their stuff, and cared deeply about helping others to learn, to grow, to become (albeit it a cliché) the best person they could be.

Don’t freedom and independence require limits? In business, creativity and innovation seem to thrive only when there are constraints.

What do you think about all this?

Gray: I certainly agree with you about the importance of order, structure, and rules that encourage civility. Sudbury Valley has all of this, but the rules are democratically made. Rules are far more effective when the people who must follow them have a voice in making them. And play itself has rules and order. This is one of the points I elaborate on in the book. All play has rules, and it is through play that children learn to create structure, control their impulses, and follow rules.

As for your point about the characteristics of good teachers, I certainly agree about the value of their knowing their stuff and caring deeply about helping others. However, you are talking about standard educational settings where teachers run the show. I’m talking about educational settings where students are in charge of their own learning and seek help, when they need it, from anyone who can help them. In this case a “teacher” can be anyone who is capable of being helpful and is willing to help. The concept of “strictness” doesn’t apply to natural teaching, only to the artificial forms of teaching that we see in our schools. Strictness is a valued trait for teachers in standard schools because teachers there are seen as disciplinarians. When people are learning what they want to learn, the discipline comes from within.

Remember, in my book I point out that one of my greatest teachers was my friend Ruby Lou, when I was five and she was six. She was a great teacher because she was just a little bit ahead of me. She had just recently been through the steps I was going through—in such realms as bicycle riding, tree climbing, and ice-skating–so she knew exactly what the stumbling blocks were and how to avoid them. At Sudbury Valley the staff don’t call themselves teachers, because they realize that the students learn more from one another than from the staff. The staff do teach, but so does everyone else. With self-directed education we don’t need a separate category of people called teachers. Everyone in life is always both a teacher and a learner.

Morris: Let’s say a CEO has read and then (hopefully) re-read Free to Learn and is now determined to establish and then sustain a workplace culture within which both teaching and learning thrive. In your opinion, where to begin?

Gray: I would begin by democratizing the workplace as much as possible, which would have the effect of making the work more like play. We all perform at our best, and learn best, when we make our own decisions about what to do and how to do it. Nobody likes to be micromanaged. The ideal workplace, I think, is one in which each person has a great deal of autonomy in performance of his or her part of the job and where decisions affecting the whole company, or a department within it, are made in such a way that everyone’s voice is heard. A good deal of research shows that workers are happiest and most productive under such conditions. If I can decide how to do my own work, I can’t be cynical about that decision, and I will work hard to achieve the ends that the decision is designed to achieve. If my boss makes such decisions for me, I will feel less motivated and will blame the boss (not necessarily to his or her face) for any failure. In a democratic environment, where each person feels responsible, everyone is motivated to learn what they must in order to do the best job they can. Everyone learns from everyone else. A CEO has at least as much to learn from all the others as they have to learn from him or her, and a CEO who recognizes that will earn the respect of everyone in the company. In a company, as elsewhere, everyone must be “free to learn.”

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To read Part 1, please click here.

His faculty page

Free to Learn Amazon page

His Psychology Today blog, Freedom to Learn


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1 Comment

  1. Peter Gray: Part 1 of an interview by Bob Morris on September 18, 2013 at 7:48 am

    […] To read Part 2 of my interview of Peter, please click here. […]

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