On moving from underestimating children towards trustful parenting and voluntary education

I doubt there has ever been a human culture, anywhere, at any time, that underestimates children’s abilities more than we North Americans do today. Our underestimation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because by depriving children of freedom, we deprive them of the opportunities they need to learn how to take control of their own behavior and emotions.” ~ Peter Gray (p.209)

Peter Gray discusses the changes in how adults perceive children over the centuries since we moved from hunting and foraging for food to agricultural societies and on into the twentieth century. Of recent trends, he writes: “Increasingly, researchers, parents, and society at large have come to view all of childhood through the lens of schooling. Everyone categorizes children according to their grade in school. Most research studies of children are conducted in schools and focus on school issues and concerns. The result is a school-centric view of child development that distorts human nature.
In schools, learning is adult-directed, not child-directed. In schools, learning is considered to be sequential, along established pathways. You have to learn A before you learn B. In schools, children’s companions are all the same age – there is no learning of skills through play with older kids, or of responsibility through play with younger ones. In schools, self-initiated play and exploration are disruptions. All these are components of the school-centric model of child development. As a result, people have come to believe that learning is fundamentally sequential and adult-directed, that the proper companions are other children of the same age, and that self-directed play and exploration are largely a waste of time for children beyond the age of four or five.” (p.218)

The surest way to foster any trait in a person is to treat that person as if he or she already has it.” (p.219)

“…the best protection against unemployment in uncertain times is having precisely those qualities people develop through self-directed experiences, not through the prodding of parents or teachers. Uncertain times require personal responsibility, independence of thought, self-initiative, self-assertion, flexibility, creativity, imagination, and willingness to take risks. These are the characteristics fostered by the trustful style of parenting and inhibited by the directive-protective style.” (pp.215-216)

Gray discusses these styles of parenting in some depth. He explains: “Trustful parenting is the style that most clearly allows the self-educative instincts to blossom. Trustful parents trust their children to play and explore on their own, to make their own decisions, to take risks, and to learn from their own mistakes. Trustful parents do not measure or try to direct their children’s development, because they trust children to do so on their own. Trustful parents are not negligent parents. They provide not just freedom, but also the sustenance, love, respect, moral examples, and environmental conditions required for healthy development. They support, rather than try to direct, children’s development, by helping children achieve their own goals when such help is requested. This parenting style predominated through the long stretch of human history when we were hunter-gatherers.” (p.210)

“Today, at least in our culture, most people are repelled by the idea of beating children into submission, whether by physical or psychological means. In today’s globalized, networked world, initiative, creativity, and self-assertion are generally valued. We see that blind obedience doesn’t work as a style of life. Unskilled labor has declined, replaced by machines, and people must be creative self-starters to find ways to support themselves. People today espouse many of the same values as hunter-gatherers. Over the past century or two, with the decline in the need for child labor and the return of democratic values, the directive-domineering style of parenting has continuously declined. For a while – peaking around the 1950s – trustful parenting seemed to experience a renaissance, but in the decades since then, this parenting style has been gradually replaced by a new kind of directive parenting, directive-protective parenting.
Directive-protective parents do not limit children’s freedom in order to force them to labor in fields or factories, or to make them servile, as directive-domineering parents did. Rather, they limit freedom because they fear for their children’s safety and futures and believe they can make better decisions for them than the children can for themselves. With all good intentions, directive-protective parents deprive their children of freedom at least as much as did the directive-domineering parents of the past. Directive-protective parents don’t beat their children, but use all of the powers they have as providers to control their children’s lives. While trustful parents view children as resilient and competent, directive-protective parents view them as fragile and incompetent. While trustful parents believe that children develop best when allowed to play and explore on their own, directive-protective parents believe that children develop best when they follow a path carefully laid out for them by adults.” (p.212)

“Suppose you are a parent who accepts the idea that all of life involves risks and that children need freedom in order to be happy, to learn how to be responsible, and to develop the character traits needed to deal with life’s inevitable dangers and setbacks. How can you, despite the forces against you, despite the fearful voices in your head, become a more trustful parent and allow your children more freedom? Here are some suggestions.” (p.219)

Examine Your own values
What is a good life? What sorts of experiences make life worthwhile? The first step  toward trustful parenting is to examine your own values and think about how they might apply to your children and your relationship with them.” (p.220)

Think back to your own childhood and recall your happiest moment. Where were you? What were you doing? Who, if anyone, was with you? More specifically, was an adult with you at that moment? Michael Thomas, a child psychiatrist and author, routinely poses these questions to audiences in his speaking engagements. When he asks whether an adult was present at their happiest childhood moment, typically about 10 percent raise their hand. For the other 90 percent, no adult was present. That, according to Thomas, suggests that our happiest moments are usually those that are fully our own, the result of our own doing, not something presented to us by powerful others.” (p.220)

Let Go of the Idea That You Determine Your Child’s Future
If we value freedom and personal responsibility, we must respect our children’s rights to chart their own lives. Our ambitions cannot be theirs, and vice versa. The self-charting begins in infancy. To learn responsibility, children must learn how to make their own decisions in the course of each hour, day, and year, and they can learn that only by practicing it.” (p.221)

Resist the Temptation to Monitor Your Child’s Activities
A trustful parent does not ask for detailed reports, from the child or anyone else, about hours spent away from the parent’s gaze. Everyone has a right to privacy and opportunities to experiment without being judged. Inquiry that infringes on privacy only invites dishonesty and resentment.” (p.223)

Find or Create Safe Places and Opportunities for Children to Play and Explore.” (p.223)

“The nuclear family is a fine thing as a home base for raising children, but for healthy development, children need to explore beyond it, even when they are little.” (p.226)

Consider Alternatives to Conventional Schooling.” (p.226)

On this point, Gray notes that “An advantage of Sudbury Valley or a similar school for self-directed learning is that it gives kids a chance to spend time in a stable setting separate from home, where there are rich opportunities for play, exploration, learning, and friendships that the parents don’t need to provide or arrange.” (p.230)

“We do have a social obligation to provide rich educational opportunities for every child, regardless of his or her family background or income. There are many possible ways to do this. One possibility would be a system of voluntary, noncoercive schools – perhaps modeled after Sudbury Valley – where children could play, explore, and learn in an environment conducive to healthy intellectual, physical, and moral development. Per student, Sudbury schools cost only about half of what we now spend per student on coercive public schools, so this plan would [-p.234] result in great savings to taxpayers. Another possibility would be a system of community centers, open to everyone free of charge.
Imagine a center in your community where kids – and adults, too – could come to play, explore, make new friends, and learn. Computers, art supplies, athletic equipment, and science equipment would be available to play with. The public library might partner with it. Local people would offer classes – in music, art, athletics, math, foreign languages, cooking, business management, checkbook balancing, or anything else that people deemed fun, interesting, or important enough to study or practice in a structured way. There would be no requirements, no grades, no ranking or comparisons between people. Local theater and music groups could put on productions there, and people of all ages could form new groups depending on their interests. There would be a gymnasium for indoor play and exploration. Children would come to the center, not because they have to, but because that is where their friends are and where there are so many exciting things to do. For parents who need child care during the day so they can work, the center might provide that, too, in an efficient way that capitalizes on the joy and benefit that older kids get out of helping to care for younger ones.” (pp.233-234)

“The decline in coercive schools and the rise in voluntary educational opportunities will be gradual, but eventually the coercive system will fade away. And then we will witness a full renewal of children’s capacities for self-control and desire to learn, and an end to the epidemic of anxiety, depression, and feelings of helplessness that plague so many youth today.” (p.235)

Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold mine) Peter Gray (c2013) Free to LearnWhy unleashing the instinct to play will make our children happier, more self-reliant, and better students for life. Basic Books: New York

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About backyardbooks

This blog is a kind of electronic storage locker for ideas and quotes that inform my research... literary research into fiction for young adults (with a special focus on New Zealand fiction). Kiwis are producing amazing literature for younger readers, but it isn't getting the academic appreciation it deserves. I hope readers of this blog can make use of the material I gather and share by way of promoting our fiction. Cheers!
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