Thursday, December 29, 2022

Not Just Their Right, But Their Responsibility

If there is one lesson I have always wanted the children in my life to learn it is to question those in authority, like their teachers and even their parents. This is not the same as saying defying authority, but rather the intellectual and social practice of doubting those in power when they say or do things that don't match what the children already know about the world. Indeed, I want them to know it's not just their right, but their responsibility to do so.

And any authority figure who denies someone's right to question them does not deserve to have authority over others.

One way I try to teach this lesson is to intentionally be wrong . . . a lot. I will hold up a plastic pig figurine and make it say, "Moo." For most children, this comes off as a joke, even if I'm saying it with a straight face. They laugh and saying something like, "No, Teacher Tom, the cow says moo!" Others just look at me like I'm crazy. 

I might insist it's raining when the sun is shining. Or that the hand drum I use to signal transitions is actually a banjo. Or that the carrot I'm eating is candy. 

I want the children to listen to what I'm saying and if what I'm saying defies the evidence before their own eyes and ears, I want them to know that it is not just their right but their responsibility, as a member or our community, to call me on it. 

This might sound risky to some educators and parents, but the alternative, which is to learn that authorities are to be believed and obeyed, no matter how irrationally they wield their authority, is far, far more dangerous. We know that the habits we develop when we are young tend to carry forward into adulthood. If we teach children to be obedient and unquestioningly compliant, how can we possibly expect them to grow up to be critical thinkers? Do as I say, not as I do and Because I said so are lessons in bullying authority that defy our essential humanity. 

I choose to rely on mutual respect instead. And when I respect someone, I must make room for them to question and challenge me.

As political philosopher, author, and Holocaust survivor Hannah Arendt wrote in her book The Origins of Totalitarianism: "The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist." Or as George Orwell writes in his dystopian novel 1984: "The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears." If the ideal subject of totalitarianism is someone who relies on others to tell them what is true and what is false, then the ideal citizen in a self-governing society is one who has learned to seek truth in their own lived experience and to challenge those who would tell them otherwise.

Perhaps the best way to prepare children to resist those who would wield power over them in the future is to leave them alone to experience the world before them, to shut up and free them to from their own ideas, theories, and understandings. This is exactly what a play-based curriculum does. As Rebecca Solnit writes in her book Orwell's Roses, "direct observations and firsthand encounters in the material and sensory world (are) acts of resistance or at least reinforcements of the self who can resist. To spend time frequently with these direct experiences is clarifying, a way to step out of the whirlpools of words and the confusion they can whip up."

Play is how we offer children the kinds of direct experiences they need to see through lies and illusions. Sadly, we live in a time when we must fight for the right of children to play, if only in the name of their mental health. Increasingly, our children are growing up in a world in which all truth comes through authority figures, educators and parents, who are telling them what to do and when to do it. Play is the way we break this cycle. It is how all of us can re-learn how to trust our own eyes and ears and resist those who would command us.


"Teacher Tom, our caped hero of all things righteous in the early childhood world, inspires us to be heroic in our own work with young children, and reminds us that it is the children who are the heroes of the story as they embark on adventures of discovery, wonder, democracy, and play." ~Rusty Keeler
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