Wednesday, October 07, 2020

Teaching Children to Be Incompetent


In 1973, I was 11-years-old, living with my family in a suburb of Athens, Greece. My brother was 9 and our sister was not even four. We lived a couple of miles from the American Club, a place that ex-pats from English speaking countries congregated. We primarily frequented it to use the swimming pool, movie theater, and book store. Us boys were pretty much free to go there whenever we wanted and we thought nothing of hopping on our bikes to, say, check out the latest comic book offerings. Our little sister, we all thought without ever even saying it, was too young for such solo excursions.

One day as we played in our garden, she asserted that she knew how to get to the American Club all by herself. My brother and I, not always being the gentlest of older siblings, doubted her, but when she persisted, we challenged her to back up her boasting and lead us there, which she proceeded to do. This was not a direct course, it was rather one that required many twists and turns, and covered, like I said, a couple miles. We boys began by teasing her, but as she competently led our expedition farther and farther, our mockery turned to respect. She guided us all that way without one false turn.

I share this story as an example of how we regularly underestimate the capabilities of young children to understand and navigate the world. Indeed, that is one of the reasons we create what John Holt called the “walled off garden of childhood,” a place where we keep our children to protect them from the outside world: a place where we round the corners and pad the edges, where toys replace the actual stuff of life, where things are dumbed down and kept simple, where we seek to protect their precious innocence from the “harsh reality outside.” When children are given the chance, they time and again prove themselves more than competent even as we bustle about in their wake as their keepers, cautioning them to not touch things, or to stand back, or to be careful, oblivious to the fact that, more often than not, they are already not touching things, standing back, and being careful, all on their own, prior to our busybody expressions of doubt about their competence.

A couple years ago we took a group of four and five year olds to an art gallery in Seattle, a place that touts itself as a place for such field trips. Prior to going in, they asked the children to avoid running, yelling, or touching the artwork, all of which are the sort of standard issue admonishments one finds on signs for adults before entering such places — nothing wrong with that.  But then, the security team took it upon themselves to shadow us, following us from place to place, forever leaping in whenever one of the children got “too close” to a painting or sculpture. They had not warned us about getting close to things. Indeed, the adults around the gallery were often standing with their noses mere inches from the canvasses as they made their studies, but any time one of the children came within even a few feet of a piece, a member of the security detail was right on top of them. Whenever a child, in their excitement, walked briskly, they were warned not to run, again, something the adults in the place were permitted to do without so much as a peep. And we were followed everywhere we went by a staccato of shushing, anytime anyone of them expressed delight in something they saw or thought or felt about the artwork, while adults were allowed to crack their jokes and express themselves unmolested.

The children took it in stride. After all, they were all accustomed to being treated this way because this is how we adults tend to behave toward children when they stray outside the walls of their garden. But we adults, in contrast, found ourselves becoming increasingly anxious, on edge, stressed out by the stress of the security team. We, as adults, were absolutely not comfortable being treated as if we were incompetent, and it finally became too much for us so we took the children outside for a snack and didn’t return.

When we treat children, or anyone for that matter, as incompetent we teach them incompetence, yet the belief in their incompetence is so ingrained, that most of us take it as normal that children are not yet ready to function outside of their garden without our constant, stress-inducing vigilance. Yet time and again, when I’ve had faith in children, when I’ve held them  as competent, far more often than not they show me that they are.

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