Thursday, October 21, 2021

"After That They Get To Do Whatever They Want"


A reader recently wrote to me in response to a post: "The way I look at it is that kids owe us their obedience until they're 18, after that they get to do whatever they want."

I wonder how many other people feel this way. I hope not a lot. In fact, I hope this guy was joking or trying to provoke me, but I know better. I don't have to look particularly far or wide to discover people, even people in education, who behave as if they believe this about the relationship between children and adults. After all, it's written into our laws. The so-called "age of majority" is 18 in 48 of the 50 US states. It's 19 in Alabama. It's 21 in Mississippi. Sure, there are caveats and exceptions, but for the most part parents must be quite neglectful or abusive for the courts to grant "emancipation" to a minor.

Likewise, when we look at laws around compulsory schooling, children are required to attend until they are at least 16 right across the US, although most states mandate school (or an alternative, like home schooling) between 5 and 18. And our public schools, where most of our kids wind up, we have enshrined obedience as one of the foundational principles of how they operate.

But even setting the black and white of laws aside, it's rare to find an important adult in a child's life who does not, at least from time to time, put their foot down. We don't even shout, "My way or the highway!" the way we might with another adult because there is no highway for children, only the prospect, even with the most lenient of parents or understanding of educators, of being allowed to "do whatever they want."

And there are a lot of things that children might want to do or be that we forbid. We don't allow children to own property, to choose where they will live, to vote, or to hold a job. The list of forbidden things is long. So, as shocking as this reader's point of view is at first, it's one that is embodied in law and society.

Most of us allow children some freedom. Many even allow them a lot of freedom, especially as they get older and have "earned" it. We tell ourselves we do it for their own good, for their safety. And no doubt, for many of us, we genuinely believe this is what we are doing, but there is no getting around the fact that we are, therefore, teaching our children the dubious habit of obeying those who are in a position of authority. There are many who see no problem with even that. After all, in the real world, it can be dangerous to defy authority.

So what about those other traits we value, like independence and critical thought? These can also be dangerous in the real world, as are creativity, standing up for one's beliefs, curiosity, and, indeed, finding one's own unique way in the world. Much safer is to do as you're told, to be thrifty, to keep your head down, and to avoid questioning too deeply or seeking after any truth that challenges the status quo. 

These are not things that are learned through obedience. Do we really expect that after nearly two decades of contrary training that these traits will emerge spontaneously at some magical moment like their 18th birthday? 

Most of us, as parents at least, strive to execute a slow-motion letting go by trying to walk a balance of allowing a bit more freedom to the children, ideally, with each passing day, until, by the time they are 18, they are ready to be totally free. Teachers, however, cannot afford too much freedom amongst their charges because, at the end of the day, they know that their number one priority, the thing that will most certainly get them reprimanded or fired, is if the children in their care are not safe, be it from physical, emotional, social, or even intellectual harm.

So, as we adults seek to protect children from fortune's blows, we also teach them that danger itself is to be avoided and it is assumed that doing as one is told (or expected or trained) is on the side of safety. Better to stick to the well-trod path, under the street lights, amidst the predictable, placid crowd, taking our pleasures in the form of rewards while avoiding the punishments.

"Don't ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive." ~Howard Thurman

As someone who has been struggling to come alive in the real world for six decades now, I'm finally starting to understand that a life with minimal danger is a life that is, all the way around, minimal. And I think that this is a great sin we commit against our fellow humans, our children: we teach them to avoid risk, yet in the real world, risk stands at the center of everything worth doing, be it climbing a mountain, telling a cherished person, "I love you," or defying authority. It is difficult enough, I've found, to "come alive" even with my adult freedom to do whatever I want.

It's no wonder that so many of the 18 year olds I know have decided to pursue computer programming, business, or accounting upon their emancipation. That's what they've been trained for, the safe course, even when their hearts tell them to be dancers or entrepreneurs or professional skateboarders or any other of the countless ways to come alive in the world. When I was 18, I really wanted to be an artist, a painter, but I chose to study advertising (advertising!) because I perceived it was a career in which I could "safely" (that is, earn a decent income and a certain social status) express myself creatively. 

If we want children to come alive, it seems to me that we're doing it all wrong. After 18 years of doing what they are told, how can we expect them to do anything other than play it safe, that this is the reasonable thing to do, let alone know what it is they want to do with the freedom we grant them upon turning 18?

What would happen if we could come to understand that it is not just morally wrong, but irrational in the largest sense, to assume command of children? What if we saw our adult role as being responsible for them, rather than in charge of them? What if we understood that our role is not to instruct or shape or train children, but rather to support them in discovering what it is that makes them come alive? Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.

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If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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