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Freedom or Control
Kids’ Right to Live and Learn in Freedom
by Wendy Priesnitz

Who Decides?

freedom
Photo © Shutterstock Images

Life learners trust kids to learn. We believe that learning is innate and doesn’t require teaching, texts or tests. We know that children are not blank slates or raw clay, to be written on or molded into shape by adults. We allow kids to learn by living. And our trust is well placed, as they grow into responsible, well-educated, sociable adults. However, those of us who are dedicated to the philosophy of self-initiated learning do not always trust our children to make all their learning and other life decisions for themselves. We often wonder about the conflicts of freedom or control.

It is easy to agree with our kids’ choices when they make the ones we want them to make. But is it really freedom to be allowed only to make choices about things for which an adult is confident the decisions will be “correct," or which fit into a certain person's definition of what is "academic" learning?

What – to take a common example – do we do if our unschooled child yearns to accompany her friends to school? We might try to convince the child that home is better than school. We might let her try school for awhile, hoping that she will find out quickly how unpleasant it is. Or we might consider sending her to a small alternative school. The venerable Sudbury Valley School, for example (see sidebar), embodies all the self-directed learning principles that unschooling does. But even in this democratically-run institution, attendance is compulsory.

Call me an anarchist, but I have always believed that it is impossible to completely understand freedom unless you are free...and that you aren’t truly free if you are compelled to do something, even if it is “for your own good.” While attending a Sudbury Valley School is a big improvement over the public school experience, it seems to me to be a faux-democracy, where children have a democratic experience within the broader context of coercion. So your local independent school may only partially solve the “who decides” conundrum.

Veteran alternative education networker Jerry Mintz is familiar with many democratic schools around the world. In his book No Homework and Recess All Day (Bravura Books, 2000), he has this to say about compulsory attendance at school: “It is important to look at this in terms of children’s rights. All people should have a basic right to have control over their own lives and their own education – up to the point at which their actions affect somebody else. When you look at it this way, you can’t be exclusively concerned with how effective this particular approach is....If you feel like working on your stamp collection, and that’s how you’d like to spend your time, who is to say that you should really be spending your time joining a book club? It’s just none of anybody’s business.”

Or is it? The choice between a stamp collection or a book club is quite a bit different than, say, the choice between walking down the middle of a busy road or on the sidewalk. Or between eating healthy food or candy. Or playing outside or on video games. So where does a child’s business become a parent’s business too? When my daughters were young, my solution to this sort of dilemma was always to ask, “What is the worst that could happen?” In most cases, the problem turned out not to be a problem when examined in this manner; in other cases, the yardstick I used measured the child’s safety, other people’s safety, followed by my own principles and level of comfort. It turned out that there were relatively few situations where they were not able to make their own choices safely.

The trouble with the notion that controlling children’s behavior over important issues is acceptable is that there is no consensus about which issues are important and which are trivial...and the definitions might vary depending on our mood or the situation. At any rate, how do we know that even very young children are not capable of making good choices about things we might feel are on the important list? My daughters taught me that children are more able to make good choices than most of us give them credit for...and certainly don’t need to be subjected to as much benevolent protection as our society provides. As a T-shirt that my daughters wore when they were toddlers said: “Kids are people too.” What the shirt merely inferred was that kids have rights too.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child put those rights on the world’s agenda; it is the most widely ratified treaty in the world. Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1989, the Convention promises children around the world the right to life, liberty, education and health care. It provides protection to children in armed conflict, protection from discrimination, protection from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, protection within the justice system and protection from economic exploitation, in addition to many other fundamental protections. Despite the convention’s near-universal ratification (only the U.S. and Somalia have not ratified it, although the U.S. has signed it and thus signaled its intention to ratify), many children are still denied their basic rights.

Even in the developed world, the essence and the delivery of these rights is often so protection-oriented as to be counterproductively restrictive and paternalistic. The term “paternalism” in this context refers to preventing others from doing harm to themselves, or providing for their needs without giving them rights or responsibilities. A paternalist, by definition, believes that she knows more than the person she is trying to prevent from harming himself. The paternalist destroys the freedom of choice of the person “harming” himself in exchange for his well-being.

But as life learners, I believe we should be doing everything we can to protect our children’s rights as well as their well-being. The issue of children’s rights and responsibilities – and those of life learning / unschooling parents – merits continued conjecture and criticism. Ultimately, I think, the limits of our children's freedom can only be decided by individual parents who have carefully considered each child's developmental abilities, and who have examined their own biases.

Resources

The Freechild Project, PO Box 6185, Olympia, Washington 98507-6185 USA
www.freechild.org

Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO), 417 Roslyn Road, Roslyn Heights, NY 11577 USA
www.educationrevolution.org

National Youth Rights Association, PO Box 5882 NW, Washington DC, 20016 USA
www.youthrights.org

Taking Children Seriously
www.takingchildrenseriously.com

Parenting Without Punishing
www.nopunish.net

Wendy Priesnitz is Life Learning's founder and editor, and a pioneering advocate of informal and child-centered learning, which is sometimes known as unschooling. She is also a journalist with over 35 years of experience and the author of twelve books.

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The School Perspective

The issue of adult control over kids’ lives is not, of course, limited to families with kids learning outside of school.

I interviewed Mimsy Sadofsky, a founder of the Sudbury Valley School (SVS), a democratically-run school in Massachusetts. As a staff member since 1968, she has been involved in the establishment of over a dozen schools world-wide that share a similar educational philosophy.

SVS claims that democracy is the cornerstone of an educational philosophy which states that children best learn to be responsible adults by being given serious responsibility at a young age. Students participate in the running of the school on an equal footing with adults. Decisions regarding school rules, administration, finances and the hiring of staff are decided at weekly School Meetings where each student and staff member is entitled to a vote. Students plan their own activities, with or without staff support, as they choose. However, attendance is compulsory and, according to this interview, parents aren't all that welcome. For those reasons, I cannot recommend or support SVS, although it's so much better than traditional public and private schools where children have no control.

Here are some excerpts from the interview.

LL: What is the role of staff at SVS?

MS: The role of the adults is to do things that the kids don’t want to do, like managerial things, and to be available as role models and instructors when kids ask. We are modeling 24/7; kids learn what they want to be like – and what they don’t want to be like – from watching the adults. They want to see more than their own family, to get a picture of the wider world.

LL: Do parents demand accountability from the school?

MS: Parents want accountability but we can’t give it to them. Who knows what a kid is thinking? We can’t get inside a kid’s head to know what they’re learning.

LL: Why do you favor your school over unschooling?

MS: It expands children’s ability to touch the world. Our school is so much richer than a home environment; there are more possibilities, more resources. It allows a child to build their world in a different way. It is also a socialization issue. There are more choices of people, and it is a more stimulating, intensified environment. Separation gets harder and less healthy as kids get older.

LL: Don’t kids separate naturally from their parents?

MS: Not living in a suburban environment and homeschooling, because they depend upon their parents to get them places. Not being accountable to your parents during the day is empowering.

LL: Why is attendance at SVS compulsory?

MS: Compulsory attendance says that this is not a place to drop in, that you need to make a serious commitment, even if you’re little. It’s partly about the group working together, but it is also about the individual. They need to know it’s their place, a place they are comfortable with. They need to attend regularly so consequences can develop and relationships can develop.

A democratically-run school means that every child is empowered, can debate and be listened to seriously no matter how old they are. This is extremely strengthening and empowering...Free doesn’t have a lot of meaning if you’re not responsible.

 

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