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Children Don’t Need To Be Conditioned

Martin LeFevre:  Meditation can be defined as the process of freeing the brain from its enslavement to conditioning. I don’t practice any system of meditation for doing so, since systems, techniques and methods are themselves forms of conditioning.  

While still in my teens I stumbled upon passive watchfulness and active questioning, which are the essence of meditation, without reading anything about them. I didn’t even use the now overused term ‘meditation.’ For me there was an inner phenomenon, and I searched for an explanation of what was happening within one.

So the philosophical framework followed by some years the phenomenon of the observer, thought and time spontaneously ending during one’s sittings in nature.

Now, decades later, taking time for the senses to attune to nature, if only in one’s backyard, and in the same non-interfering way watching thoughts and emotions as they arise, is the cornerstone and wellspring of my days. Just being aware of what is and not trying to do something in reaction to it is the way meditation and transformation occur.

I still have many questions (even the gods never stop asking questions), and this is one that sprang to mind today.

Must children be conditioned, and then spend the rest of their lives (if they’re serious people) unconditioning themselves? Or can attention by parents and teachers and others to the child preclude, or at least greatly mitigate the human brain’s tendency to absorb conditioning?

For the vast majority of parents and teachers, conditioning is a given. To their way of thinking, it’s a matter of good conditioning vs. bad conditioning. To my mind, that’s like saying, there’s good slavery and bad slavery. It was still slavery even if the master treated his slaves well.

So what is conditioning? Conditioning is the inculcation, through coercion, domination or repetition, of molds, behaviors and identifications in the brain. The perennial example of conditioning is spanking a child when s/he wanders out into the street. The child then associates the pain of the spanking with the danger of the street.

As a young man, I would occasionally babysit small children. For a few months, I regularly took care of a little boy named Paul, who was three. Paul was bright and mischievous, but he had the habit of running out into the street, which of course scared the bejesus out of me.

The child was old enough to know better. Paul had acquired the language skills appropriate for his age. I tried explaining to him the danger of what he was doing. It didn’t work.  I would have to watch him like a hawk when we were near the streets. It was certainly not my place to spank him, which I didn’t believe in anyway.

Since I was attending to Paul with care and affection, we had a relationship and he looked up to me, and not just because I was so much bigger than him. Even as a young man, I saw that attention to a child also meant attending to one’s own reactions while with the child. Again and again I saw that this quality of total attention had a remarkable effect on children, giving them freedom within a context of watchful care.

I realized that Paul did not perceive the danger that the cars posed to him. How, I asked myself, do I convey that to him without conditioning him, coercively or not? (All conditioning is coercive to some degree, in that it compels us to do things from external motivations.)

My question brought its own spontaneous response one day when we were standing at a light to cross the street. Keenly aware of Paul’s habit (which is itself a form of conditioning), I was keeping an eye on him, and sure enough, he started stepping off the curb. Without thinking it, and therefore without the interval between idea and action, I immediately dropped to a knee so that I was eye-level with Paul.

I allowed my gestures and facial expressions to reflect my own fear, and pointed at the cars, and conveyed the fear that I felt for him running into the street. I didn’t say anything, but held Paul firm, without anger or violence. I could see by the look on his face that he finally got it. He never ran out into the street again. Paul had seen for himself the danger that streets posed, and there was no need to condition him by spanking or other means.

To say that I conditioned him by displaying my fear is to neither understand conditioning, or fear. The question is: Can we directly perceive things as they are and act from that perception for ourselves, and raise children to directly perceive things as they are and act from that perception for themselves? Certainly we can, and doing so is the antithesis of conditioning.

When you see a venomous snake a few feet away, fear is the right reaction. But other than real and present physical dangers from venomous snakes, speeding vehicles, etc., fear is a psychological reaction, and it is a destructive and delimiting thing.

Most if not all conditioning by parents and teachers is based on psychological fear in one form or another. (And we wonder why we have so many fears and complexes as adults.)

So must children be conditioned, or can they grow and develop in holistic attention, which flows from self-knowing awareness in the adult? They can, and it’s the true meaning of freedom.


Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He welcomes dialogue.

Published with permission of the author. All copyright remains with the author.