Interview With Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D.–Author of The Human Odyssey

by Kelly Jad’on (originally published on Basil & Spice blog, December 7, 2007).
The author of 13 books, Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D., has spent his life writing and speaking about human development, with a particular focus on children. He has appeared on The Today Show, CBS This Morning, CNN, and has presented more than 800 keynotes, workshops, and seminars in 42 states and 16 countries.

Dr. Armstrong, until the publication of The Human Odyssey, most of your writing seemed to focus on children and issues which affect their education. True? If so, why the departure?

In the early 1980s I began teaching courses in both adult and child development, and received a doctorate degree in East-West psychology from the California Institute of Integral Studies in 1987, where I began working on the idea of creating a psycho-spiritual book on human development. Then I was sidelined by my writings in education. About ten years ago, I came up with the focus of this book, and have been working on it pretty steadily since then.

My writing in education has been motivated by the fact that there is so little understanding among parents and educators about what children really need in order to learn. The No Child Left Behind Act and the general climate of education these days are pretty dismal. Childhood is disappearing as we push adult responsibilities earlier and earlier. For example, play and recess are being taken away, and corporate models of thinking are being institutionalized in classrooms. Kindergarten has become a worksheet wasteland in order to get kids ready for college. Childhood is being bulldozed by what I’ve called in one of my books (The Best Schools) “the academic achievement discourse.”

Is there any stopping it? That is, the disappearance of childhood?

I don’t know. Childhood is a manifestation of the spirit. Spirit is being hacked away in other arenas of society too, through political and military influences, for example.

Yes, I do have hope, I’m an optimist. But I also have a realistic understanding that massive forces are being unleashed against the spiritual side of life these days.

Frances Wickes, a Jungian analyst from the 1940s, illuminates this dynamic in her book The Inner World of Choice. She shared a dream (it may have been her own as a young child) about a fragile flower facing a massive behemoth. The flower prevails and is able to survive against this catastrophic image. I believe that this is the situation we have today. Fragile truth will ultimately win out.

My blog addresses the image of the behemoth in posts such as the recent high rates of suicide in girls, boys beginning to develop eating disorders , infants being terribly abused — these are the warning signs of a disintegrating culture. But it also addresses the strength of the fragile flower by highlighting proactive organizations, programs, and resources that are available to help individuals at each of the twelve stages of life (prebirth, birth, infancy, early childhood, middle childhood, late childhood, adolescence, early adulthood, midlife, mature adulthood, late adulthood, and death and dying).

Back up a moment. What were you like as a child?

I was playful and serious at the same time. My father was a physician, but because he had a nervous breakdown and lay around the house for seventeen years, I became an anxious child. He would blow up suddenly without warning. It was like being in a minefield, and I had to be vigilant all the time. Avoiding my father’s rage took a lot of work on the reptilian level. Our house was destroyed by an F5 tornado around same time my father had the breakdown, so there were a lot of terrifying moments. But growing up in Fargo, North Dakota, an uncomplicated place to live, was otherwise rather normal for me. I played baseball, had a coin collection, liked to ride my bike, had good friends. I was not a particularly spiritual child, but can remember things like being able to leave my body in a floating state while going to sleep, and producing eidetic imagery (inner images that were as clear as outer perceptions). And, I was always wondering about the ultimate questions of life. My mom even told me not to think about these things so much.

What aspects of your childhood carried through into your field of research today?

I had an aunt who went into education. She became director of the Amsterdam International School, and helped to transform it into a building based on Waldorf (Rudolf Steiner) architecture. I think I was was inspired by her unconsciously. I also had good teachers who recognized my own individuality and reached out to me. That made a difference. I had a voracious love of learning, and enjoyed regular art and music periods. I’m just now rediscovering my art side — painting and doing collages. I drew a lot as a child, then switched and became very verbal. I think my hidden art life is one reason I got so passionate in my writing (e.g., In Their Own Way, The Myth of the A.D.D. Child) about kids labeled learning disabled (LD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) who are very artistic but are not having their creative side acknowledged or developed.

Do you have children?

No. I’m working on a novel right now to address the irony of spending so much of my professional life focused on children, yet not having children myself. It’s called Childless. My wife is a psychotherapist who works with children and adults in sandplay therapy. So we’re both working with kids — just not having them ourselves. This may sound like rationalizing, but I think there’s a certain detachment that people have who don’t have children, that they can use in helping to better the lives of all kids. I think of my own teachers in elementary school, many of whom didn’t have kids, and yet who helped me (and others) quite a bit.

In The Human Odyssey, you discuss “Adapters” and “Rememberers,” using the industrialist Leland Stanford and the poet Emily Dickinson as examples. How are the “Adapter” and the “Rememberer” keys to living life?

“Adapters” are concerned with fitting into the world that is, with all of its demands for conformity, ambition, and street smarts. “Rememberers” are always thinking of what is possible — they’re concerned with what it means to exist, to realize one’s potential, to explore the depths of one’s being. The fact is, we need to have both of these qualities in order to live a full life. A parent has an obligation to help her children “adapt” to the world’s demands, but she must also help her child “remember” who she really is (her gifts, her essence). Some parents focus all the attention on the adapting, and their kids lose their souls. Other parents go the other way, and try to protect their child from the real world, and this also creates an unbalanced personality. In The Human Odyssey, I talk a lot about Odysseus in Homer’s epic poem, and how he had both the “adapter “and the “rememberer” in him. That’s part of what made him such an archetypal personality.

You’re critical of much early childhood education these days. What’s the biggest problem?

During early childhood kids shouldn’t have formal lessons in reading, math, or any other subject. This is a time of life when brains are plastic and being dynamically wired to the world; if they are exposed to abstract letters and one-dimensional computer screens, that’s what the brain will be wired to. What they need is to be exposed to rich multi-sensory environments.

What should children be doing?

They need to play. During early childhood, play is what nature designed kids to do. Some researchers think that the neocortex actually evolved from play. Materials for play should be simple — puppets, blocks, simple toys, dress up clothes. And they should span the multiple intelligences — artistic, musical, nature-oriented, science exploration, physical play, etc. Books are okay to have in a play environment, but let the children decide what to do with them. It’s their choice. Other good examples involve manipulatives — sink and float, sandboxes, or just allowing them to mess around. These should be open-ended experiences. That’s the essence. They also need the time — not being shuttled from place to place, and they need a safe space in which to play.

Dr. Armstrong, which stage of life are you in? Are you comfortable with it?

At 57 years old, I’m in what I’ve called in The Human Odyssey, “mature adulthood” (forgive me if that sounds a little self-serving!). Mature adulthood roughly spans ages 50 to 80. For many it is a whole new stage of life because advancements in modern medicine have extended the life span by two or three decades. Some people at this age may feel as if they’re winding it up (based on messages they received from previous generations) but then realize they’ve got 20 or 30 more years to fill. This stage can be a wonderful second childhood, an opportunity to experience the energy and vitality of a child, and the knowledge and experience of an adult. By this age, most of us are no longer looking for a mate, or raising a child, or beginning a career (ages 20-50). I was a latebloomer and didn’t find my marriage partner or career until my late thirties. So now that these are going along pretty well, I can focus on more on developing other potentialities that didn’t get a chance to develop during my early adulthood, like my art and novel-writing. The ages from 50-80 can be a time to explore oneself (more “remembering” and less “adapting”) and be generative by mentoring, grandparenting, teaching, and/or volunteering. One has greater life experience at this stage and greater opportunity to give back to the community.  For those with poverty or health issues, mature adulthood may be a time of more suffering. It is also a time of life when the body begins to break down. It’s not a completely rosy picture. I’m noticing that my friends and I are beginning to talk about health issues just like our elders did.

Our culture says about aging: “Look young physically,” whereas it should be emphasizing “Be young spiritually.” I question people wanting to mess around with their faces and bodies surgically doing face lifts and tummy tucks. It seems to me that they’re almost saying: “I want you to think that I’m young, but I’m really not. I’m a liar.” For men it’s more of a virility issue. One of the messages of my book is: “Let’s face it. You’re going to get old. Get used to it. Live a balanced life. Nurture your body, mind, and soul.” The irony is that during youth people abuse their bodies because there’s no immediate feedback, but they’re laying the seeds for physical problems in their 50s, 60s and 70s. If my book helps even one person in young adulthood take better care of him or herself so that they have a better second half of life than they would have otherwise, then I will be very happy indeed.

The Human Odyssey adds a substantial amount of new information about the Twelve Stages of Life.

In The Human Odyssey, I’ve extended the conversation about human development to include prebirth, birth, death, and the afterlife. It seemed necessary to me that I discuss what many cultures around the world have thought about the stages of life. That’s why I added an extra chapter (beyond the twelve stages of life) on the afterlife. Mentioning the afterlife shouldn’t be seen as something flaky or New Age, but rather as something “cross-cultural.” Going back to earliest recorded history, cultures have always had maps of the afterlife (for example, the Egyptians built much of their culture around their image of the afterlife). We ought not leave these out of a book on human development. The life cycle is a huge thing to try to get one’s arms around. The more perspectives we can provide, the better we’ll be able to understand this incredible adventure.

I’m very excited about the filmography I’ve created at the end of the book — 130 movie listings with annotations organized by stage of life. I’ve always been profoundly moved by certain movies. I’ve noticed that the best of them usually deal with the human life span in some way (for example, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane takes us from his childhood to his death in old age). Many of the great films focus on a specific stage of life, like adolescence. Some examples include: Romeo and Juliet , Rebel without A Cause, and Westside Story (which totally blew me away as an eleven year old). I’d like to see people read a chapter from The Human Odyssey, watch a movie on that stage, and then talk about it among friends and/or family.

How should I relate to The Human Odyssey?

I wrote The Human Odyssey because I wanted people to see the big picture of our journey through life, and I wanted them to begin to care about the stages of life in a proactive way. Each person has all twelve stages of life within them — some of them have been wounded by negative past experiences and need healing. We all know people who are in the different stages of life — they also need care and support from us — the infant son that needs human touch, the nephew who is having trouble learning at school, the friend at midlife who just got downsized at work. Our community is represented by all twelve stages — and we need to care for the individuals in it who are at each stage — our abused elders, our adolescents at risk, our toddlers who need to be protected from dangerous toys. I hope that people will read the book and then be moved to take positive actions that can transform human lives at each stage of development.

About the author

I am the author of 16 books including my latest: The Myth of the ADHD Child: 101 Ways to Improve Your Child's Behavior and Attention Span Without Drugs, Labels, or Coercion (Tarcher-Perigee).

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