Alan Watts On The Lie We Tell Children About Agency

How Our Flawed Understanding Of What A Person Is Produces A Lifetime Of Frustration

Screenshot from Ingmar Bergman’s Through A Glass Darkly. A young man and woman sit at a picnic table, the woman holds a book in her hands. Subtitle reads: You in your cage, I in mine.
Photo credit: CriterionBabe. Through a Glass Darkly 1961, Ingmar Bergman.

Like most problems, this one is not new.

It’s been floating around in the ether for quite some time now. Something whispered into journals or spoken in drunken slurred speech on the way home from the bar when the speaker knows that no one will remember their words.

We tell children that humans have agency: that we make our own choices and therefore are responsible for our lives. We then prevent children from making as many choices as possible, funnelling as much of their life as we can into a prescribed mold (that all evidence suggests produces despair, anxiety, dread, and meaninglessness).

The brilliant philosopher and psychoanalyst Alan Watts outlined this problem years ago in this wonderful lecture. He began by pointing out the flaws in our very understanding of what a person is: We define a person as a being, separate from the world in a certain sense, that has agency: that is, control and responsibility over it’s own life.

What Is A Person?

He encourages the listeners to examine the word person more carefully. It comes from the Greek word persona, meaning mask. It refers to the ancient Greek masks worn in plays through which the sound goes through (per +sona). The word has been so separated from its origins that we now consider the mask through which your sounds comes out to be your true identity. In the process, we have confused the individual organism with the person, with the role it is to play.

Beyond this, we’ve defined the role each of us is to perform in a way that condemns everyone to perpetual frustration. We teach children they are free agents, and then, to their dismay, we demand of them to be anything but free agents.

What Does It Mean To Be A Free Agent?

Children are told by their parents, their peers, and their teachers that they have agency. That is, they are responsible; they are an independent first cause, an origin of actions and thoughts and feelings. This means that we can praise the child or blame the child for what they do.

After we’ve made this clear, we tell them that they MUST love us. That all nice and good children love their siblings, their parents, and their grandparents. That they mustn’t do this because we ordered them to, but because they themselves want to. Children are commanded by us to do certain things BUT to do them voluntarily. Is the paradox revealing itself yet?

(Let’s not get into the current state of humans being confused about the nature of consent and all the scenarios in which we tell children they must hug their uncle or kiss their grandmother even though they don’t want to, these ideas are certainly related, but today is not the day I’m going to talk about THAT.)

Alan points out that when you are so young, and your identity is defined by society, you can’t resist it — you don’t have the resources, knowledge, or wisdom to grasp that a trick is being performed. You believe that you are a free agent as you’re told (insert here all the guilt and shame accumulated from a lifetime of feeling entirely responsible). Ironically, YOU ONLY BELIEVE THIS AS A RESULT OF NOT BEING FREE. You are simply unable to resist society’s definition of you.

Alan claims that this paradoxical data input at a young age is responsible for a contradiction in our entire sense of identity. He claims this is why we associate our ego, sense of self, or I-ness with frustration and tension. We are told we are free to make our own choices and then discouraged from allowing those mechanisms within ourselves to make those choices.

Combine these ideas with what Alan Watts’ thinks about the true role of a parent, and how science says we misunderstand children’s sense of leisure when we attempt to organize activities for them.

About the author:

R.C. Abbott is a reader who likes to share the things she learns.

She blogs about writing for both subsistence and fun at WriteHikeRepeat and regularly posts on Medium about Childhood, Philosophy, Nature, Education, and Religion.

She won’t ever ask you to sign up for a newsletter because she thinks we all need less in our inbox.


Self Studies. Currently reading: Fear and Trembling , Lamentations, Walden. Writing about Childhood, Religion, Philosophy, Nature, and Education. God willing.

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