Critical Acclaim for "Empowering the Child - Nurturing the Hungry Mind"

"The book is fantastic! It is written in language that even the most casual lay person interested in learning, at home or in school, could understand the very powerful principles involved. This isn't just a book for educators, but one for all people interested in learning.  I would think parents in particular might appreciate it."


-Samuel W. Corsi, Jr.

Assistant Commissioner

New York State Education Department


" You have made such a convincing rationale for what we feel is the vision of where we want to be.  The 'Yes, Yes' I described after reading your first chapter has multiplied into a multitude of Yeses, all with !!! after them.  ...your writing says so much about your philosophy drawn from so many sources.  Absolutely couldn't put the book down."


- June Main, Ph.D.

Associate Professor

Jacksonville University


“Empowering the Child is truly one of the most inspirational, hopeful, convincing, and insightful books on what needs to happen in education that I have read. I was so excited about the book that I have forwarded a copy on to both our Executive Director, and to another researcher here, who has been doing related work with his Dimensions of Learning model."


- Barbara L. McCombs, Ph.D.

Senior Director

Mid-Continent Regional Educational Laboratory


"Congratulations on your publication. It certainly is readable and your argument for self-initiated learning certainly points the way to go. We have to figure out ways of helping children take at least some responsibili­ty for their own education."


- Matthew Lipman

Professor of Philosophy

Montclair State College


" Your thoughts on the educational needs of children remind us all to strive for educational reform that views students as responsible learners.  Your treatise on elementary education for the next century was not only highly readable but offered the philosophical underpinnings for comprehensive school reform.  It will be my pleasure to forward your book to other educators."


-Nancy S. Grasmick

Superintendent of Schools

Maryland State Department of Education


" How wonderful it would be if parents and school board members read this book and demanded that children have the kind of learning experiences Dr. Hartjen describes.  As he writes, "Let the old, outdated learning models die away, and give breathing room to our children's inborn passion to explore the world.""


- Dorothea Halliday, freelance editor and writer

The East Hampton Star

January 11, 1996


"Empowering the Child clearly and succinctly describes the essence of education, which is to enable the learner to become self-directed and independent in acquiring knowledge as a lifelong pursuit.  I feel it is a very valuable resource for parents as well as educators.  It's a lot like a staff development course in 135 pages."


- Evelyn Winfield, Ph.D.

Dean of Instruction

Charles County Schools, Maryland 


"Hartjen says the most successful educational approach needs to start at the very bottom: with the children themselves.  He preaches faith in the natural inquisitiveness of children, letting them assume ownership of their job of learning.  ...for persons to be truly successful life-coping skills need to be learned in the context of real social relationships, not contrived ones.  Using ideas from Eric Fromm, Rollo May, Kahlil Gibran, and others, he builds a case for needing to allow children freedom, respect and dignity, with guidance to develop self-discipline.  For someone who firmly believes that children's minds are empty vessels to fill and mold, this book may have little to say.  But if you are look at a young child as a seed needing water and nourishment to grow into its beautiful self, Ray Hartjen's book provides readable encouragement for all growers' of children."


- Barbara Tollefson Burdick

Music Teacher, Canton, N.Y.


Author's/ Publisher's Comment

Learn how to engage children's minds, enthusiasm, and natural inquisitiveness.  Help them develop their self initiating, focusing, thinking and creative abilities.  Empowering the Child: Nurturing the Hungry Mind does this and more.  It introduces the reader to the learning environment, a community of inquirers, where students and teachers participate in a living democracy.  Graduates of such schools become the leaders, doers and the active citizens we so badly need in today's society.


This book became far more than I expected.  The very act of focusing on writing while reading books in tangential fields as Leakey's Origins Reconsidered, Waldrop's Complexity, and Fromm's The Sane Society, and others enabled me to assimilate ideas into new knowledge.  These new insights are woven together to what many have called a book that "reads like a journey".  


To order a copy of Dr. Hartjen's book, Empowering the Child - Nurturing the Hungry Mind



Raymond H. Hartjen, Ph.D.              

Old Fireplace Road                 Order directly from the author and pay by check $14.95 which includes shipping

East Hampton, NY 11937       or e-mail your purchase order to .




Chapter 6

Self-Initiated Learning


Rule 2: Support, focus and shape self-initiating behaviors in young children.

Self-initiation is another key to being successful in life, yet traditional schools do not allow this talent to emerge. Nothing is accomplished in the self-initiated learning environment without the student making it happen. This chapter explores various dimensions of self-initiation and the reasons for its inclusion in a school that focuses on empowering the child.

To be good citizens, we must actively participate in the democratic process. Yet today, politicians and reporters lament over poor showing at the polls. To become successful in the new jobs now emerging, we must draw on self-initiated skills. Yet today, business owners complain about the passivity of their new employees. As a country, we admire and pay tribute to the self-starter in our society, yet we do nothing to foster this behavior as our youth proceed through school. With rare exceptions, we inhibit and even punish self-initiated behavior. Instead of encouraging students to explore their own emerging ideas, we insist that they put them aside, work on them only after school, after homework, after chores, after everything else that has been assigned by parents and teachers is out of the way.

What a gross mistake! We are telling our children that their own ideas and interests are of no value. Listen to the adults. They have all the answers. They will educate you. They know the proper way. Think of what this does to our children's self-image, to their sense of self-worth, to their thinking skills and the development of self-reliance that they will need in later life.

Rollo May states that "the contemporary existentialists see freedom as the quality most threatened by our modern age, with its assembly-line objectification of human persons." (Freedom and Destiny, p. 7) I have already described the connection between freedom and human dignity. Now I propose a similar connection between freedom and self-initiated behavior.

It is our natural state to be inquirers, doers, to be dissatisfied with the status quo, always striving for new horizons. Passiveness is an unnatural state that grows out of our loss of freedom. That loss begins when we enter a restrictive school environment, and more often than not endures later in our equally restrictive jobs.

In the self-initiated learning environment, nothing is accomplished without the student making it happen. The environment is designed this way because self-initiation is a key to being successful in life—yet traditional schools suppress this skill.

Before young students can learn self-initiation, the schools must acknowledge the importance of allowing them the freedom to use it. I cannot overstress the importance of students learning to take responsibility for their own acts. Teachers must trust their students with a degree of responsibility that allows them to find their own focal point in their studies.

We now know that when children are encouraged to undertake projects of their own choosing, they release enormous amounts of energy to pursue those projects. They will explore in greater depth, exhibiting the type of self-discipline that wipes away behavioral problems and contributes to a community of inquiry.

Under this system, old behavioral problems, such as acting out for attention, diminish—and new behavioral problems emerge, giving the teacher a new role. Teachers must help overzealous students learn to settle their differences, to appreciate alternative points of view. A teacher will begin to act more as a coach/parent/therapist than simply a disseminator of information. This role calls for a new sort of teaching skills, encouraging and prodding students to look deeper into their subject and to assess different perspectives.

Shaping Self-Initiated Skills in All Aspects of Life

The concept of shaping behavior to develop certain skills comes directly from behavioral psychology. The trick is to catch children applying their initiative in most any non-destructive manner, and actively reward that behavior. It need not be an academic act. It is equally valid to reward activities representing all aspects of a well-fulfilled life, from painting or woodworking to fitness or computer technology.

The real judgment call is to decide, as self-initiated behavior continues, whether at some point it ceases to act as a positive force. A child who is fascinated with a musical instrument may spend untold hours practicing and refining this skill, perhaps laying the foundation for a lifelong interest, whereas a child who becomes devoted to a computer game might eventually be rechanneled into a more purposeful activity.

Given a classroom in which children are expected to write weekly contracts with their teacher, it is easy for the teacher to guide them to the breadth of activities that will help them develop all facets of their education. Parents may also find it helpful to set goals and develop contracts with their children. By this means, you will know your children are gaining a certain breadth of experience while still fostering that sense of perceived choice among the activities available. Furthermore, contracts help you and your children to define limits. Television viewing, for example, both in time and in program selection, is a freedom that you may decide to limit, whereas reading may be encouraged.

Self-initiated activities should not be limited to developing solitary skills. Learning to relate in small and large groups, both as leader and as participant, is a critical skill that may be self-initiated. A child with an idea that requires multiple participants must know how to invite and engage others in the activity. Practice, practice, practice is the key to developing and honing this skill, and that is the beauty of this system: teachers have their students' attention for 180 days a year.

The graduates of schools employing well-conceived models of self-initiated learning have exemplary motivational skills. They know how to get things done. They have inquiring minds and know how to turn ideas into reality. They have well-developed leadership skills. They can take a topic or idea and pull a group together around it, leading it to completion. As a result, they often become class leaders in upper grades and college.

New Beginnings

The idea of dying only to be born anew is common to many of the world's religions. It figures in our secular ceremonies at the end of each year, when we sing out the old year and celebrate the birth of the new year, which is symbolized as a newborn child. The media further this celebration by heralding the first birth of the new year. So it is proper that we celebrate self-initiated behavior. Let the old, outdated learning models die away, and give breathing room to our children's inborn passion to explore the world. It is appropriate to treat this natural ability with respect and help our children learn to shape it to their advantage.

There is a new day dawning. A new century dawning with incredible challenges. Our outdated forms of schooling must be laid to rest with the dying of the twentieth century. Our children and our countrymen deserve to be treated as humans, and only humans have this wonderful power, to focus, plan, and carry out complex endeavors. Let's become experts at empowering our children to grab the initiative and run with it. It is, after all, a natural state of being. Our present environment of continuing restriction can only lead to passivity—a condition we cannot condone in the twenty-first century.

Remember: Nothing happens unless you make it happen.  Only you, as a parent, a teacher, a          concerned member of the human community, can enable a child to become self-initiating.  Encourage your children to become risk-takers, to venture to the very edge of their knowledge and skills.


Technology and Self-Initiated Study

A Vignette

During the Reagan administration, my daughter became so incensed by the president's denial that acid rain represented an environmental problem that she made it the subject of a science project, and set out to design an ambitious study of the effects of acid rain on rivers and lakes in the northeastern United States.

Motivation was not a problem in this inquiry. Instead, she constantly pressured me to help her open new doors. To complete her research, she needed water samples drawn from a number of sites in New England, as well as closer to our Maryland home, so she drew on my network of contacts with educators to identify students in northeastern schools who would draw samples for her study. She wanted to get accurate pH readings on her samples, and the local community college science department had very sensitive pH meters that would do the trick, so I was pressed to open that door. She needed water samples from the Port Tobacco River, an estuary of the Potomac, so we set off at fixed intervals, in rain or shine, to draw them from specific points that were accessible only by boat.

As a parent, I found it fascinating to discuss her findings, both from her readings and from her research, as it contrasted so with President Reagan's assertions. Her anger and frustration with the government only mirrored my own. Looking back on this vignette from the perspective of self-initiated behavior, it is clear to me that the inquiry itself became self-fulfilling and, to some degree, self-perpetuating. In the future, technology will facilitate student inquiries such as this. It will enable students to delve into findings at the cutting edge of important social issues and other topics of immediate interest. In this process they will be well-served by computer bulletin boards, networks, and e-mail (personal computer-based mailboxes).

If schools had been equipped with the appropriate technology when my daughter conducted her study, and if students were in the habit of using this technology on a daily basis, she would have needed only to announce her objective on a computer bulletin board that was read by her peers. Students with similar interests would have responded to her e-mail, and her research would have been greatly expedited.

The same daughter, now in graduate school at the University of Minnesota, has acquired her own computer and her own e-mail address. It will be some time before large numbers of schools connect to online computer networks, but the trend is in that direction.

My position as a parent is that if you want your child to keep up with the forefront of this information age, you had better be ready to provide support whenever needed. We must push for this technology in our schools, and we must support our children's active pursuit of answers through this means.

Reproduced from Empowering the Child: Nurturing the Hungry Mind, Raymond H Hartjen, Alternative Education Press Ltd., 1964 with permission of the author.