I devoured my latest edition of Life Learning Magazine last night. I was struck by the irony that as I snuggled into Brady's bed covers to read about unschooling, Brady labored at his computer studying for his first-ever high school final. While Brady completed an online study activity, I highlighted quotes like "How should your child be? The way she is." I scribbled frenetic, inspired notes in all available white space on the magazine's pages, while Brady moaned, "I am tired of studying!" So he stopped and spent two hours composing guitar music because we practiced math by figuring out he could not show up for his final and still, if our estimations were correct, pass with a D-.
In the magazine Wendy Priesnitz had an article titled "Learning in the Real World" in which she examines how personal empowerment is nurtured as kids engage in real living. Another article questioned the need for school as the middle-man if the goal of education is to teach kids how to live outside of school. (An aside: For starters, that's not the goal of the school system.) As I read these articles, I'm reminded that school's ideas of trusting children are usually limited to things like controlled choice. As a teacher I once saw this as giving some control to the students, but it was really only an illusion of control. I may have given them the options of presenting orally, making a poster, dressing as a historical figure, or building a model, but in the end they still had to produce something that I chose, and choose from a menu of options I created.
Kids aren't stupid, and that's what adults seem to forget. We mistake disobedience for inability. We connect dots that aren't in the same county much less on the same page, such as deciding a child who won't complete assignments has behavior problems. But in all the hub-bub, we never ask the kids what they think, what they want, what interests them or inspires them. We give them limited choices, and when they don't choose any of them (or don't embrace them with joy or gratitude) we suggest something is wrong with them.
A common suggestion among unschooling circles is to consider whether you'd treat a spouse, friend, or colleague the same way. If you ask something of your spouse and he disagrees so vehemently that he refuses to do it your way, do you find ways to coerce him? Do you threaten him? Do you talk to someone about screening him for ADHD? Or do you allow him his opinion? (And if you don't, that's another matter all together.)
I witnessed an interesting interaction between a child and her parents at a park a while back. The grrrl was eating a sandwich when her sister began to whine that she wanted some of it. The grrrl suggested her sister eat something else from their cooler, but the father asked her to share with her sister.
When she wouldn't, he asked again. Then he cajoled. Then he sternly suggested. Then he began raising his eyebrows when he asked again if she would share. Then he began to grimace when he asked. And then he said, "Now we have to talk," in a tone that typically means "you brought this on yourself." And off they went to "discuss" the issue.
Now, this all went down in a rather calm manner. The man didn't raise his voice. He didn't threaten punishment (though I don't know what was said when they went elsewhere). He didn't sound mean or rude or threatening or severe. Most parents would say he was, if anything, too lenient. But the grrl had politely declined to share her sandwich, and there were plenty of other foods to choose from in the cooler.
She had been sitting quietly, eating politely, enjoying her meal, when someone came up and told her she had to give it up.
When they returned from their discussion, the father announced to the rest of the family that the grrl had decided to share her sandwich.
And the grrl said, very calmly and very quietly, "I did not decide. You made me share my sandwich" as she gave half to her sister.
A minute passed and the grrl said again, very deliberately but again very quietly, "I did not decide. It was not a decision," to no one in particular. She never raised her voice, she never threw a fit or cried. She ate her sandwich in relative calm while the father smiled at the outcome, the sister gobbled up her half of the conquest, and the mother focused on her own meal.
Here's the thing - if we're going to make our children do something, shouldn't we at least be honest about it? If we're going to pull rank, shouldn't we at least assume the responsibility of it? Wear the right hat? When we demand something of someone else and then make them feel badly for not doing it willingly, it's rather insidious.
Perhaps we believe if we phrase it nicely, our young charges will feel delighted at giving the expected answer. But to truly ask, then we are suggesting there are at least two answers - yes and no - not to mention the range of everything in between. But if we ask when we really mean to demand, then what happens? We erode our own credibility for starters. And I dare say it goes downhill from there.
We owe it to our kids to tell the truth. Sometimes my truth includes "because if the kitchen is cleaner, I'll be less likely to cry." And while that too could be coercive, it's usually - by that point - the raw truth. Making demands may produce an obedient child, but what we usually hope for encompasses far more than obedience. To instill compassion and kindness, we have to live compassionately and kindly. There's no other way. And saying one thing when we mean something much different, does not lead down that path.
Many minutes later as we all cleared our lunches, the grrl still sat quietly at her place. And as I left, she said again, to no one in particular, "I did not decide."