Hierarchies Are a Sign of Rigidity

I have a theory. It’s based on my child development work.

In my child development work, I document the age-related stages children go through. What I notice, sometimes, is there is a period of rigidity as a new skill develops.

Let’s say the new skill is remembering what happened during the day. This develops in the early threes. I called the milestone, “Recollection.” As a child develops this new skills, they are rigid about it. Remembering the details of the day is a very exact thing. And they aren’t very good at it at first. So they can’t be fluid and flexible about it, yet.

This recollection also helps them make plans. They can remember that you are out of milk. Therefore, they are quite interested in helping you make a grocery list, so you don’t forget the milk. If you were to get to the store and they would be out of milk, they would be extremely distraught about it. Their first time ever doing this task and it didn’t go well. Until they get good at this skill, they can’t handle unexpected twists and turns well. They are rigid as they develop the new skill.

What I notice often in these stages is that a new skill develops because the child starts to put things in patterns. With recollection, what I notice, before this, at the previous milestone, Mental Sorting, is that they can start to remember things about the day, but only in patterns. They might remember that they saw something that was white, white, red, and white. They can remember this, and that there were four colors. They can’t quite remember that x event happened. It is at first the pattern that strikes them. Or they start to size up life. They notice, “When I got sad, you got mad.” They link the two. Or if you ask them about their happy and sad part of the day, they insist the two be linked, “My happy part was riding my bike; my sad part was falling off of it.” They might yell at you if you don’t link the two. It is the pattern that makes sense to them.

I propose this is because this is how the mind works. Try to memorize the following list: eggs, cows, sunflowers, daffodils, horses, whales, grapes, tomatoes, birds, roses, tulips. Now try categorizing the list into animals, fruits, and flowers. The list should become easier to memorize.

It is a wonderful thing that we humans can categorize things. I would put forth that it itself drove most human thinking. Being able to put things into a pattern means we can turn it into an abstract thought. We see a lot of horses and come to think of them as a “horse,” a word, a symbolic representation of something in reality. These categorizations don’t just help us speak. They help us think.

However, when we are putting things into categories, or learning, we tend to be a bit rigid. Have you ever tried to help a child with homework? The frustration is real. When you are working through something, do you like distractions? By nature, as we put things into categories, we tend to be inflexible. But when we learn it, we get good at it. It becomes automated. It becomes fluid.

I noticed something in my reading. I read a LOT. What I noticed was a bit of a tricky thing. I noticed that when authors put things into a hierarchy, they tend to be manipulating you. They are trying to lead you to their idea when in truth better ideas out there exist, whether or not they know it. I suspect they started doing it because they find it “works,” especially when they can’t otherwise get people on board. It does work–for some people, in fact a lot of people–but I see this approach now as a desperate plea to get people on an agenda.

Here is one example. In a well-reviewed book on diet that I read, the author gives the reader “levels.” To get on her approach to diet, there is a beginner, intermediate, and advanced level. If you only eat x foods, you’re a beginner. If you wholesale buy into her whole approach, drinking even the exotic juices, etc., you are “advanced.” And, well. Who doesn’t want to be “advanced”?

I learned a few things from this book. I adopted some of the advice into my life. (I am purposely avoiding saying what book it was.) But this approach of getting people to an “advanced” level typically has some negative side effects.

The author also had daily meal plans for one week. You really can’t do this to people. You can’t uproot their whole diet, telling them what to eat for morning, snack, lunch, and dinner, and expect them to do well. I recently also read Zuni Cafe by Judy Rodgers and she strongly advises against this. You’re not getting to know your food or how to cook well if you are trying something new so often. Rodgers advises to pick one food alone and cook it three different ways, to truly get to know the food and how to cook it. It is a MUCH better approach. It incorporates the human element. You become seduced by food.

I intuitively know at this point that regimented meal plans are a failed approach. It’s as diet culture as diet culture gets. Your diet naturally should change based on weather, season, mood, your life cycle, etc. Recommended daily plans isn’t a healthy relationship with food. And it makes the beginner/intermediate/advanced approach look so … well, manipulative. You have to appeal to a person’s sense of “being certified” to get people on board. Because asking people to eat something drastically different from what they want or are used to just doesn’t work. And other, better, approaches exist.

I similarly read in another book advice to forgive your caregivers in a stepped approach. The author concedes you won’t forgive overly terrible parenting wholly. But if you can understand 60% of it, you will be…on the path to healing or something. At 40% or whatever, you have work to do. At 10%, “you’re not even trying.”

And I have to wonder: why is forgiving terribly toxic parents a goal at all? Why? Just why. A child is far better going no contact and never looking back–which is standard advice now. As an adult, you have a life to live and children of your own to raise. Why are we always so commanded to be embroiled in forgiving our parents? It’s possible to just cut ties and move on, without blind rage or unfinished business. And yet so many “spiritualists” want us to be dragged through the sewer of our parents problems in order to “heal.” Frankly, I suspect ulterior motives. Because no contact is effective and healing. And yet somehow, despite being so effortless and effective, which is you know, ideal–little effort, big impact–we are told it’s somehow unwise. Yeah…calling the BS.

I watched the same thing with my son’s martial arts. They kept hanging a black belt over the children. “A black belt is a white belt that never gave up.” My son repeated this, with stars in his eyes. Then they would test the kids for a belt, and test them on things that were never taught. It was so disorganized, and I don’t think it was all just an accident. They dangled this carrot on a stick, constantly, to children. And something was always going wrong, he was always just a little bit off, and couldn’t get that next belt. By inherent nature, I find this corrupt and manipulative. While I would love to let my child do something like martial arts, I cannot let him participate in this manipulative system of belts.

I’ll give one more example: the “trivium.” This is as found in classical education models. You have three hierarchal steps: grammar, dialect, and rhetoric. First you learn the basics, then you fight with it, then you present it. Makes logical sense right? Ok, the main issue I have is it starts with brute memorization. They say it’s a “hook” needed to spur interest later. Here’s my argument against that: children already ARE interested in life. They don’t need this “hook.” But when you realize that the trivium is designed to “show higher understanding,” it makes more sense. They want the child to learn a specific thinking. They don’t want to follow the child’s natural interest. So they need the brute force memorization at first. I’ll have a LOT more to say on this later. But it is again this hierarchal thing, which is somewhat in alignment with how humans learn, making it all the more dangerous.

How many cults do this to people? I understand Scientology, for instance, keeps telling you you will achieve some great level of Scientology if you just take x courses. You take x courses, and they make up yet more classes. This is an obvious case. Some of my previous examples aren’t so obvious…yet it’s the same thing.

My spidey senses are up now, whenever I see this. When someone uses this “if you keep going up this level, you will x,” I am instinctively suspicious. Not only is it a sign of not the best solution out there, it exploits a natural human process of how to learn. People learn and transition in hierarchies. They learn new skills via categorization itself. We have to do a lot of internal sorting about something before we get comfortable with it. We read and study and learn. We have to come in contact with something to learn it. We have to reach out and touch it. It’s hard to deal with the abstract. By nature, it is hard. If you can have hands-on experience, it helps. If someone presents to you a pretty, hierarchal thing, it makes it easier.

But once something is understood, this hierarchal structure should be abandoned. And, in truth, it’s not one we can necessarily impose on children or others. They have their own system for categorizing the world. As a simple example, when I gave my children flowers to arrange as they like, my son organized them by color. My daughter, by flower type. This happens all the time in child development. Give young three year olds some marbles and an egg carton, and they’ll organize them how they want, endlessly, trying different things. Give them a specific task of how to do it and they do it once and abandon it. This categorizing is largely internally driven. And it kicks off deep brain growth. At these young ages, they aren’t just learning knowledge. The categorization itself (not memorization) helps pattern certain core mental skills themselves, such as data recollection, how to apply principles to real-life situations, and more. So, exploiting hierarchies is deeply personal to me. You are exploiting natural child development.

If you are dealing with someone or some system that insists on hierarchy, I might suggest that you are dealing with something that is rigid. And one that has not found the best solution out there. Hierarchies are like scaffolding. You put it up while you are building something. Then you take it down.

If someone insists on keeping it up, you might suspect that they aren’t quite done developing what needs to be developed. Any good system of thought is light and easy. It’s not just light and easy to start with. Through a lot of thinking and developing, it becomes easy. I think Marie Kondo and her KonMari system is an excellent example. She describes trying all sorts of systems of organization, where she tries out many different organizing tools and methods to decide what to keep or get rid of. When she started asking clients, “Does this spark joy?” she hit the jackpot. This is her now famous system. It’s a simple question. But it does a LOT for people. She says most ghizmo gadgets aren’t worth the money. She uses simple bins and boxes to organize. And all the rational questions in the world, “Have you used this?” etc., aren’t necessary. Does it spark joy? The answer guides you well. It is effortless, light, and sophisticated. This is how good solutions are. And it lets you organize things based on your internal rhythms.

There are way too many things that still have unnecessary hierarchy in them. Schools, with their K-12 nature. It utterly permeates society, really.

In my book on Three Year Olds, I discuss the way children naturally learn about the world. I study child development, giving me insight into how they seem to learn core skills. As noted, there seems to be a categorization stages that happens before a skill is acquired. They need that time to learn and play and sort things how they want to. We don’t need to kick them in the butt to learn. They are already wired for it. We can monitor them, and their development, to come up with best practices, backing off when we should and inserting ourselves when we should.

It is as if we are still groping, still building, and still scaffolding. Abandoning some of these structures seems to be scary for some people. And, yet. This really is how to evolve.

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