How Do We Know What We Know?

This post is in response to my deep concern about the nature of our politics, our values, and our learning (and lack of it in some important areas). I feel I am taking a risk in writing this (I'm afraid right now as I type), but this something that people who know me best both appreciate and feel frustrated or judged by - though there is no personal judgement from my end. And it definitely relates to parenting - relating to our children in an honest and supportive ways.

We have grown up and been educated in a culture that appears to us to value what we know, what we have "learned," and to disregard or hide what we don't know. But passing tests and getting good grades in school, whether things we've gotten good at, struggled with, or gave up on, relies on knowing something is considered as true because it comes from teachers, textbooks, and lectures, and not from our own investigations. Our investigations could include our questioning, our experimenting, and our conversations with people and ideas very different from what we know. We seem to no longer have a skill for distinguishing between what we know and what we do not.

This thought came yesterday, as Carolyn and I were traveling to the Golden Gate trails for a hike. On the way there, as we approached an intersection in our drive up the side of Glen Park Canyon, I looked at the name of the cross street and said aloud, "I wonder where that road leads?" Carolyn responded, "I think it goes across the canyon." And I then thought, "Why does she think that?" We weren't familiar with the area, and we couldn't see beyond a block or so to the right from where we were, and there was no clue indicating that the road didn't immediately turn right or left before getting to the canyon. My brain was working on why we think what we think even when we have no evidence. This has been especially important since the election of our 45th President.

Later, on our hike, I overheard a young women saying to her friend on the trail as we passed, "I don't know who or what to trust anymore."  My first thought was, "Yeah, really." My second thoughts were, "Well, we can trust that we either know that something is true or we know that we don't know,  rather than assume we know things we don't know. But this seems not to be generally true. In my studies and observations of young children, learning, and human behavior, there is infinitely more that we don't know than what we do know. And this seems to be obscured by our learned (neurons that fire together, wire together) pattern of assuming we know more than we do, or: that our automatic (survival/belong) response to the unknown is, perhaps thanks to our educational system, is that "I know!" whether we do or do not.

In thinking about this, I see it everywhere. We think we know others' intentions, we think we know why do what we do, why our children do what they do - even when we haven't had a real heart-to-heart, down to earth conversation with them about our lives, our struggles, our desires, and their lives and their struggles and desires - no matter how old they are. Nor do we take into account that their perception of their relationship with us is more important being truthful, which means they may say things that they know aren't true in order to pacify us, satisfy us, get us off their backs, or just don't want us to worry about them (yes, they really do care about us!).

So I ask you, make it a practice to just notice when you say something, or hear something and you immediately blurt out, "Yeah," or "I know." Try asking, if you want to put yourself on the line, ask "How do (I, you) know that?"  And when someone asks you a question, stop and consider saying, "I don't know, let me think for a minute," first. And then answer what is true for you. This is one way mindfulness, aka metacognition, being present, etc., is really useful - noticing and thinking about what we are thinking.

And with regard to your children: Their thoughts and feelings from yesterday are gone, and new information and meanings have arisen. Notice when you assume you know something about them. Always ask. It is disrespectful to think we know what is true for someone else - EVEN WHEN THEY TELL US it is. Just listen, and treat them as if what they said is true. Then they learn that what they say matters to us. That is respect. In an environment of respect - if it occurs around you - your children will feel safe to say what is true for them.

Does this feel helpful? Notice if it is.  And then, if so, say so.       Yours, Marty