I was at an event in a local primary school with D and C a few months ago. It was friendly and cheerful enough with lots of colourful pictures and creative projects covering the walls. Then, on the way out, I caught sight of a sign on a noticeboard. It said that the local council were offering a trophy that would be awarded each week to a different class. This would be the class that, ‘Comes into assembly quietly. Listens respectfully. Sits sensibly. Leaves assembly quietly’.
Quiet, respectful and sensible. I felt bothered by this sign, and in the context of our current upside down world, I found myself thinking about it again today. I wonder why society is so keen for children to be obedient and quiet. Surely at this moment in history, like at no other time before, we need the generations who will soon be in charge to be independent thinkers – thoughtful, curious and, above all, challenging of the status quo. I guess it makes crowd control easier if everyone does as they are told, but to give a trophy for being as little bother as possible? That’s a powerful message to be giving our children.
We’re asking them to listen to us respectfully because we know best, but we also know that humanity has to drastically change its ways if our planet is to have a future. And we’re asking them to learn what we tell them to learn, when we don’t have a clue what they’ll need to know. We do know that many of the future’s jobs aren’t even invented yet. In fact, a study by the University of Oxford in 2013 predicted that 47 percent of jobs will be eliminated over the next 25 years. We have no idea what the world will look like in 20 years time, never mind 50.
So perhaps it’s time we embraced the real potential of our children. They will certainly need all sorts of phenomenal skills and qualities, among which creativity, adaptability, cooperation, resilience and empathy are likely to feature high on the list.
Instead of asking our children to conform to a mould that many can’t fit, won’t fit, don’t fit, and which is unlikely to serve them or the planet, how about we let them be who they need to be. Truth to power? Let’s allow them to discover their own truth, and let’s try to not disempower them. Imagine if every child trusted their own voice and their own unique way of being. Not just the ones that excel academically and socially. All of them. Argumentative, diplomatic, shy, loud, outgoing, practical, introverted, caring, curious – every child has something to bring the world.
Unschooling nurtures an unending questioning of the status quo. Something that’s fascinating to schooled people like myself is that when you live with children in this way, knowledge is rarely about what is right or wrong. It certainly can be. A maths question, a word in French, the year the Second World War ended… Some things come up that do have a definitive answer, but they are always part of a much larger context. And this larger context is an unending questioning of life, a constant discovering, debating, weighing up, and reasoning. And on this endless journey, the ideas and opinions that each child has are always coherent with their own perspective on life, and their own views on what is right or wrong for the world.
To progress through life in this way allows a child to learn to trust their intuition, all the while discovering their own place in the world and bringing their voice to it. This is particularly magical to me. As a child at school I was quiet and conscientious, overly preoccupied with fitting in and not getting things wrong. Looking back, it seems that the main point to my days at primary school was to not draw attention to myself. I was indeed quiet, respectful and sensible. It took me many years into adulthood to find my own voice and be confident with it.
I love my children’s aliveness, their desire to debate everything under the sun, and the fact that they know that their opinions are as valid as mine. They are endlessly curious about the world, and in particular about what seems right or wrong to them. They are indignant that children can’t vote. It’s incomprehensible to them that adults keep making what they see as appalling choices and that children have no voice in all of it.
I love that they want their voices to be heard, though it causes some arguments, because three people can’t always be heard at the same time. I also see how they bring their own moral compass to pretty much everything. There are some strong convictions and although I don’t agree with them all, these are always based on what they think would benefit the world. They explore things freely, and since no one is judging, and there’s no right or wrong to strive for, things can just flow. We’re all so much freer when we’re not being judged. They keep looking for answers until their curiosity is satisfied and it feels right to them.
And just because unschooled children don’t have rules around when to be quiet, when to listen, and what respect means, doesn’t mean they don’t figure all that out themselves. Rewards, punishments and arbitrary rules vastly underestimate what our children are capable of. It may feel challenging to loosen the reins, but if we want our children to have the courage to create a better future, we have to stop trying to make them be how we want them to be and how it suits us best for them to be. Let them be who they can and need to be, even (or especially) the ones who can’t sit still in assembly.