Alan Watts On The Lie We Tell Children About Agency

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

R. C. Abbott
3 min readMar 15, 2021


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, 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…