Tuesday, November 03, 2020

What We Can Learn About Democracy From Children


Every year, right after Easter, one of the children always raises their hand to tell us about the exciting thing that happened at their house over the weekend. "The Easter Bunny came to my house and laid eggs!"

Then, after a moment's pause, someone always replies, "The Easter Bunny doesn't lay eggs. Chickens lay eggs. The Easter Bunny paints them and brings them to your house."

At this point, the conversation shifts into a debate, complete with raised voices. Factions emerge, sides are chosen, tempers might even flair. You see, the Easter Bunny is an article of faith and as we know, public disagreements about faith can often be quite heated. As their teacher, I have no interest in quickly wrapping up these debates because, after all, this is part of how a self-governing society works, and a self-governing classroom is the gold standard for a play-based educator. We have to be able to discuss everything of importance, together, even if it sometimes gets loud. Even if it isn't always polite. Even if it means that we have to set aside our plans in order for us to have the important discussions we need to have. And my job is simply to make sure everyone was heard and to, if necessary, prevent violence.

Some years, these Easter Bunny debates really rage, often over who does the actual egg laying, but it could be about anything. Most recently, the debate was over the size of the Easter Bunny, with most kids believing that it is a normal sized bunny, while some felt it must be super-sized. One boy told us that it was a grown man in a bunny costume, while a girl insisted that there can't just be one Easter Bunny. "There are too many kids in the whole world for one bunny. There are seven. And they're all girls." And every year, there is at least one Jewish kids who asserts, "Your parents are lying to you!"

These debates can be intense, sometimes consuming a half hour or longer, as the children take turns standing up for what they believe, which is, after all, the responsibility of a citizen in a democratic society. And, as is true for most adult debates of this kind, at the end of the day, I don't think anyone ever changes their minds. Indeed, it's clear to me that many come away even more firmly convinced of their point-of-view, but that's not the point. What's important about these debates when they finally wind down, is not that anyone is persuaded. Everyone still gets to believe what they believe, but what has changed is that we've now broadened the definition of who we are as a community. I get to believe what I believe, but that friend believes something else, and that friend believes something else, and so does that one and that one. The important thing is that we come away from these discussions, these exercises in democracy, with a clearer picture of who we are. And it's only from this sort of understanding that real self-governance can emerge.

It's Election Day, the day we are called upon to vote, which is the least we can do. I mean that. Voting is the lowest bar of participation in a democratic society, yet for too many of us voting is our one and only foray into the vital community project of self-governance. But I want the children I teach to grow up knowing that democracy is a 365 day a year responsibility, one that calls upon all of us to both speak and listen, every day, in our neighborhoods, at the grocery store, in our churches, and wherever else we come together, not with the intent to win or lose, persuade or be persuaded, but to understand. How can we possibly make good decisions without a full understanding of who we are?

This is too important to leave to the politicians and pundit classes who seek to portray us as rival camps rather than a community of individuals each with a unique perspective on the world, one that is not only worthy of being spoken, but also heard. This is why it must happen when we are together, when we are present with one another's humanity, face-to-face, even when wearing a mask, even if separated by a plexiglas partition, even if it's only through our computer monitors. The politicians and pundits do democracy with a meat cleaver, chopping us up as they see fit, whereas when we actually engage in the sort of day-to-day democracy that I see every day in my preschool classrooms, we build connections more than divisions, we create understanding more than animosity. This is how democracy is supposed to work. Without a commitment to understanding who we are, it's impossible to vote responsibly. 

At the end of our Easter Bunny debates, after we've all had our say, after we've spoken and listened, agreed and disagreed, the kids then do what we adults so often forget to do. They go outside and play together, not putting their debate behind them, but including it, continuing the democratic process of creating a community for everyone. This is the kind of democracy children create. We can do it too.

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Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in Australia and New Zealand as well as the US, Canada, the UK, Iceland, and Europe. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. 

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