Supporting Children to Live and Learn Without
Schooling or Coercion
Sixteen years of parenting and living with four autonomous children has taught me that real education is about the intrinsic motivation of autonomous learners; in other words children learn best when they are supported in following their own interests. In contrast, I have learned, both from theory and from the hard experience of getting it wrong, that coercion is not only destructive of personal autonomy, but also inimical to learning and the growth of knowledge.
Learning without coercion began rather tentatively in our household. When we first made the decision to home educate we were full of misguided zealotry to prove that we could outdo the schools at their own game. Our children would not only be more literate and more rounded in their educational achievements, but also exemplify our naïve ideals of romanticized childhood; our children wouldn’t crave sweets, watch videos or play with cheap plastic toys. Surely they wouldn’t even want to! Our children, thankfully, were made of more individual stuff, and our well intentioned, but highly manipulative, efforts soon ran aground.
We relaxed. Life became infinitely less stressful, more flexible and much more surprising. Sweets weren’t of the devil – their teeth didn’t rot and they didn’t stop eating anything else. TV and videos were an amazing source of information and learning (and not just the shows that were intended to be educational), second only perhaps to conversation as a learning tool. Cheap plastic toys had their place among the array of resources for imagination and learning.
We relaxed some more, took the plunge and decided that coercion, after all, had to go. Our children had as much right to personal autonomy as we did, and although we should constantly be sharing information, morality and opinions, in the final analysis they each had to live their own life. We held our breath and watched skeptically for things to go wrong. Instead, life changed for the better again.
“When we first made the decision to home educate we were full of misguided zealotry to prove that we could outdo the schools at their own game.”
Where does learning end and living begin? It doesn’t. Our theories of autonomous learning, far from being catastrophic, enticed us to begin thinking about every area of our life together and to believe that we can all live together well when we are living by consent.
What parent hasn’t longed to improve his or her relationship with children? What parent hasn’t thought to herself, “Surely, there must be a better way than this,” but felt defeated and trapped by old ways of relating? There is a better way. It’s not magic; relationships are demanding, complex things, but discovering that all of the energy we’d ever used on fighting our children, cajoling our children, begging our children, coercing our children could go instead into finding solutions with them was more than a breath of fresh air. Now we live each day with the conviction that there are solutions that they want, solutions that we want, solutions in which everyone is a winner.
We all want happy families, but most of us believe that despite our best efforts someone is going to have to lose. We can’t all get all that we want all of the time and even if we have a generally happy family there are bound to be some tears and cross words along the way. More like it? Well, yes, I’ll agree that we are all human, that sometimes our energy or creativity fails us, but that doesn’t mean that solutions don’t exist, only that sometimes we fail to find them. In short, children can and should have their own way. Madness, impossible, dangerous, a crackpot utopian idea?
Well, if you’re reading this article, you and I probably agree that the relationship between parents and children is one of the most important on the planet. However, in far too many publications the solutions are about getting them (children, sometimes the thinly disguised enemy) to do what you (the parental adults or experts who know best) want. Sometimes we are advised to act with authority: take charge, show them who is boss and all will be well. Sometimes we are encouraged to take a more subtle and liberal approach; learn to listen, hear what they are saying, negotiate to give them freedom within carefully and clearly defined boundaries and we will produce moral, thoughtful young adults. What’s more, we’ll be able to hold our heads up in front of our friends.
Too many parenting theories have in common the conventional understanding that sometimes children have to lose and sometimes losing is good for them; sometimes they just have to learn what the real world is like, that actions have consequences and we can’t have what we want all the time.
Learning and living by consent with my family has convinced me that children should get what they want. Moreover, far from producing spoiled brats who will exhaust you with their demands, rob you of any life of your own and then want more, helping your children to get what they want in life is also enormously liberating for parents. We have all begun to live as though it is possible to have our preferences met, and believing it has certainly been the first step to realizing it. When you are living by consent we all get our own way.
"It’s not magic; relationships are demanding, complex things, but discovering that all of the energy we’d ever used on fighting our children, cajoling our children, begging our children, coercing our children could go instead into finding solutions with them was more than a breath of fresh air."
Do you remember that perfect newborn for whom you were going to do everything differently? Babies are born rational and creative and if, as they grow, they are given lots of age-appropriate information and encouraged to learn through making their own guesses about the world and finding that rational thought and creativity will then develop and flourish.
All too often though, the demands of life or our own limited thinking gets in the way and children’s experiments are interrupted by coercion. “Stop making a noise”; “Stop playing now, I have to do the shopping”.… When this happens a line of thought is sabotaged in its tracks. Children are left with the painful feeling of being thwarted and left in a state of turmoil; they are thinking about how to build a LEGO model while their mother is holding them down to be strapped into a car seat.
In the minds of many parents this may seem like a rather trivial and unavoidable incident, but is it really so trivial when this sabotaging occurs over and over again, especially in the same area? How long is the child going to be able to keep thinking rationally about Lego models or car journeys or visits to the shops? A particular line of learning might be damaged or cut off; areas of irrationality, poor theories, and a decrease in problem-solving capacity might be felt or ordinary everyday activities might become sources of anxiety and negative emotion. When parents or schools start to try to manufacture every learning event that a child has, this sabotaging of thought and rationality becomes chronic, but when life learning and autonomy go hand in hand there is no such sabotage.
Parenting is an enormous undertaking. The last thing parents need is to be judged or made to feel guilty for every little error they make with their children. None of us wants to be put on the defensive, feeling that we have to justify every action against some impossible and perfect standard of ideal parenting. Yet those of us who have already realized the enormous power of self-directed learning in children are in an excellent position to see that coercion causes damage and that this damage is not only wrong, but also avoidable. We are already on the cutting edge of educational thinking and it’s a small, though profound step, to take to realize that our families can live by consent and that life will never be the same again.
None of us can be the perfect parent, but we can all keep learning. Consent-based parenting is about doing our fallible best now, learning all the time, and persisting in the belief that we can all get our own way – parents and children alike – and be better people for it.
“Respecting children’s autonomy is not tantamount to raising immoral hooligans, but it does make for a lot of surprises; life and learning is never anything but interesting.”
How? At its simplest, living by consent involves replacing the idea that someone has to lose with the idea that we can all win. Replace conflict with consent. When I first encountered such an idea, it raised my hackles; liberal I might be, but insanely negligent I was not. I thought, “So what should a parent do? Let her four-year-old son play on the roadway because he wants to?”
Children getting what they want is not about neglect; it is not about never making suggestions or offering criticism. Nor is it about children who never change their minds. Rather, it is about the assumption that children are autonomous human beings just like us and, this being so, we have to find ways to live with them that respect and nurture this autonomy. Children who are treated like autonomous human beings and who have access to lots of information and moral theories are open to reason and have no reason to want to behave in self destructive, self denigrating ways.
The key for me and for my children has been about learning to win. Simply attempting to live non-coercively soon ran us into problems. We too often got stuck, unable to think creatively enough to see how not to coerce, especially in situations where we had always resorted to coercion in the past. We were locked into a negative mindset.
After a while, we realized that actively seeking solutions and new knowledge is the way to get ourselves off the hook. We switched from the negative track of how to avoid coercion (which often had the hidden subtext that coercion would eventually become inevitable) to the much more positive and helpful track of how could we all learn something new and win in this situation. We soon realized that if we were serious about living by consent then we had to forget all the old boundaries between living and learning; they must be integrated.
At a home education event last year one parent remarked to my daughter that it must be a nightmare living in our house. “It must be utter chaos,” the parent commented. “How can you ever get anything done when everyone has to be happy with whatever they are doing?”
Our life is not the nightmare of chaos and activity-paralysis that this stranger imagined. My husband designs websites, I write books, the children are engaged in a thousand and one projects. The more we take everyone seriously, the more time and energy we seem to have. Home is not a chaotic free-for-all; it’s not so much that anything goes, but rather that anything can be solved to the liking of all. Respecting children’s autonomy is not tantamount to raising immoral hooligans, but it does make for a lot of surprises; life and learning is never anything but interesting.
Dr. Jan Fortune-Wood is a writer, poet, life coach, parenting adviser, and liturgist. She is author of books on home education, autonomous education and non-coercive parenting – Doing It Their Way; Without Boundaries; Bound To Be Free & With Consent, all published by Educational Heretics Press. She home educated her own four children.