The Chinese have an insightful word for ‘nature’. It is pronounced, ‘ziran,’ and means ‘of itself’, ‘naturally’ or ‘spontaneously.’ Think about it: A tree does not grow as tall as it possibly can, because someone or something told it to or forces it to. Instead, growing to its full height or greatest width, with the resources at its disposal, is all it does. It does not rebel against the laws of nature. It cannot.

If we were to apply the principle of ‘Ziran’ to relationships, it reveals an affecting truism about the concept of love. If a mother is to ask her son, “Do you love me?” and the son responds with, “I’m trying my best, mom,” you can expect the mother to cringe within. She does not perceive this expression of love to be flowing ‘of itself’. Instead, she wishes for the son to respond, saying something like, “Of course I love you, mom! I cannot help myself!” If the mother demands love from her son, then she inhibits the natural flow of love, and stops it dead.

The concept of Ziran can also be applied to a corporation, who desires of employees to embrace the vision and purpose of the corporation as if it was their own. Depending on the company culture, this vision can either be enforced, or inspired. The author of “The Little Prince,” Antoine de Saint-Exupery says it most beautifully,

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

Deborah Ancona, a professor of management and organizational studies at MIT, explains that while the brain is young, it is quite malleable. As we grow up, we develop neural pathways and the more we use those neural pathways, over years and years, they become deeply cemented inside the brain. By the age of 25 the brain is almost solidified. When an adult is then presented with new ways of thinking, or a new point of view that is contrary to previously held believes, it can be almost impossible to break the stronghold of the existing neural pathways deep inside the brain. [1]

Tara Swart, a senior lecturer at MIT, writes, that as an adult, if you wish to be open to new ideas, or to develop new habits, i.e.: build new neural pathways, one would be wise to recognize that the new pathways you laid down, are extremely fragile.

Let’s return to the example of the parent-child relationship. Consider a child who is born into an Islamic extremist society. On top of that, consider that society to be poor and lacking effective educational opportunities. Swart’s research suggests, that without the right environment and without repetition and practice, this human being’s brain won’t be able to create new neural pathways and enable new ways of thinking. Reasoning with the adult version of this child, whose brain has solidified, would be almost futile.

Let’s bring this example closer to home. Consider a child born into a typical Western society, who is presented with a specific religious worldview and taught to reject all possible alternatives as heresy. This means that the child’s brain is, essentially primed, to reject any ideas that do not flow along the existing neural pathways. The child’s beliefs are laid down, before he is empowered to skeptically interrogate the information presented.

What if the mother and the educational system flipped this around? What if she first endeavored to empower her child with a robust toolset to skeptically interrogate the claims made by the media, those in power… and herself.

What would such a toolset look like?

Early origins of such a toolset can be traced back to the seventeenth century and to Galileo Galilei, the father of the scientific method. He questioned the concept of geocentrism: A model in which the sun, moon and stars all circled earth. He was skeptical about this model, then formed a hypotheses that it’s actually the earth that circles the sun, not the other way round. To validate his hypotheses, he developed the first telescope to do experiments, and having accumulated sufficient evidence his hypotheses became the theory of heliocentrism, with the sun at the center.

The authority of the day, the Catholic Church, persecuted Galileo for his ‘false doctrine’ that contradicted their scriptures. Even Martin Luther, the father of the reformation, called Galileo ‘a fool who went against Holy Writ’. [2, 3]

The value of ongoing revision, as necessitated by the scientific method, is amplified further, when two centuries after Galileo’s theory of heliocentrism was developed, further experiments and observations by William Herschel, Friedrich Bessel, and other astronomers, showed that the sun is not at the center of our solar system, nor our galaxy, nor the universe. Herschel, limited with instruments that could not observe beyond the limits of the Milky Way galaxy, incorrectly assumed that the sun was in the centre of the galaxy, a theory known as Galactocentrism, which was eventually corrected by the findings of Harlow Shapley in 1918. Today, according to standard cosmological theories on the shape of the universe, the universe has no center and it appears as though all points are at the center.

Galileo seemed to have had a mental toolkit that enabled him to discover a truth when everyone else was mislead. Let’s look a little closer at the scientific method:

As you may have recognized, first the scientist makes observations and then formulates a hypothesis. The scientist then sets out to do experiments that could either validate or reject the hypothesis. It is important to recognise that a hypothesis can have many lines of evidence, and with sufficient lines of evidence, a hypothesis may mature to become a theory. With overwhelming lines of evidence, the theory, can be considered ‘fact’. But scientists do not tend to talk in absolutes, or facts. They consider a “scientific theory as reliable (not a mere guess) but also provisional (subject to ongoing revision).” [4]

What if we applied principles of the scientific method to parenthood and education?

If you choose to empower your child first with the scientific method, as a sort of ‘baloney detection toolkit,’ before you enforce your specific worldview, you may fear that he might grow up to embrace a different set of beliefs about life and the nature of the cosmos. Or anything for that matter. Relationships, work, sex and politics. This fear is real and cannot not be taken lightly. But think about this, if you lived any time before the seventeenth century, before Galileo, it would be highly probable that you believed, without reservation, the theory of geocentrism (with the earth at the center of the universe) and would have taught this false theory to your child. Looking back, with the beauty of hindsight, would you not rather have empowered your child with a certain way of thinking and be proud if he was clever enough to point out false theories by preachers, politicians, teachers, the media and even from yourself?

Perhaps you argue that children are too young to think for themselves? Scientific evidence paints a different picture:

“The commonly held view that young children are concrete and simplistic thinkers is outmoded; research shows that children’s thinking is surprisingly sophisticated. And yet much current science education is based on the old assumptions and so focuses on what children cannot do rather than what they can do.” [5]

Research in the United States also shows that students often have robust misconceptions about the nature of science [and the scientific method], and what’s more, some science teachers share these misconceptions. [4]

Finally, let’s think about the moral implications of the traditional approach to education, as opposed to teaching them principles to skeptically interrogate their world: If the child grows up with specific beliefs about the nature of the cosmos, before he is sufficiently empowered to skeptically interrogate the origins of those beliefs, can one consider the child’s adult choices to be truly ‘free’ choices? Did the parent and teachers not contribute to cementing the child’s neural pathways so deeply in the brain, that he had no other choice?

The mother is motivated by love to educate her child as best she can. Armed with the traditional educational approach, will future generations consider the mother’s approach to parenthood as a form of love, ignorance or manipulation?

Perhaps you fear that this line of thinking may cause your child to eventually embrace a different worldview from yours. But remember ‘Ziran.’ Do you wish for your child to embrace your worldview, just because you told him to? Or do you wish for him to love your God, just because it is the only choice he has?

I acknowledge that this fear you experience may be real, or rather scientifically speaking, the sensation of this fear may be very real for you. Let me encourage you with the words of John the Apostle, a disciple of Jesus in the Christian faith:

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.”


All photographs copyright Pierre F. Lombard. My niece, Ilze, at 16 months. Irene Dairy Farm, Centurion, South Africa.


[1] What It Takes To Change Your Brain’s Patterns After Age 25. Vivian Giang.


[3] World Religions: The History, Issues, and Truth. By G. A. Mohr; Edwin Fear

[4] The Importance of Understanding the Nature of Science for Accepting Evolution, Tania Lombrozo, Anastasia Thanukos, Michael Weisberg. Evolution: Education and Outreach.

[5] Taking Science to School, Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8. Committee on Science Learning, Kindergarten Through Eighth Grade. Richard A. Duschl, Heidi A. Schweingruber, and Andrew W. Shouse, Editors.