Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Freedom in Every Part of Life

I've done it! The essay for Unschooling Voices - my attempt to answer to the question: "Do you extend the principles of unschooling (trust, freedom, etc) into any other areas of your child's life?" And you know what? Although I've known this stuff for a while and it underpins more or less everything that we strive to do, it was good to remind myself exactly why we bother!

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This is one of those questions that when asked by the unschooling uninitiated and then answered honestly by an autonomous educator has a tendency to induce a strange sort of contortion on the face of the questioner as they try to suppress what looks like apoplexy, for it is indeed the case that the simple answer is "Yes, into all of them" but that this reply is often seemingly way too irresponsible to be countenanced calmly. To remedy this situation, a welter of explanations are usually due but even this may not be enough, since a proper comprehension of the idea that a child should have freedom in all areas of his life often requires the toppling of many long-cherished beliefs, the unpacking of a bundle of theories that are predicated upon the idea that a child must be controlled, the building of an understanding of the theories that underpin freedom for children, and an ability to cope with the pain of looking squarely at the fact that one may have wronged one's child, and indeed may have suffered wrongs done to oneself. This is a lot to ask, and it often takes some time.

But the simple fact is that my answer to the question is "yes" or at least "yes, I do TRY to facilitate freedom in every area of their lives", for of course I do fail, though this failure does not usually disable me with guilt, for I know that I aim high and that failure is difficult to avoid.

So why should I take such a seemingly ridiculous stance? Afterall, children are not rational beings and therefore, by most assessments, cannot be deemed worthy of freedom. They must be controlled, otherwise they would do things like run under buses. They would stuff themselves with sugar at every possible opportunity. They would drop out of trees, off cliffs, eat wasps and pigeon poo, stuff their fingers in sockets, refuse to learn to read, take the TV apart, beat up their siblings, veg out on the sofa all day, set fire to themselves and the house and generally bring on the apocalypse.

But just hold on a second! The assumption that children are not rational beings is based upon instances when perhaps they are not so, but this doesn't mean that they are incapable of rationality and indeed many of the above activities may have contained a core of rationality, say one of rational intent that simply got played out irrationally, for it is actually the case that children are often very keen to acquire the skills of reason, of being able to understand the universe as clearly as possible, of being able to act effectively in it.

It is this inclination towards reason that a parent can tap into and help flourish in the cause of freedom for children. So a kid wants to find out what bird poo tastes like? His parent can save him the trouble when she tells him it probably doesn't taste so good, and may give him a nasty bug, wouldn't he prefer something more obviously tasty and edible? Why then would he choose the poo? You haven't limited his freedom, you haven't coerced him. You have jointly and rationally found a common preference. Or say, a child wants to get to the other side of the road, but doesn't see the on-coming bus. Catching him by the hand, and then helping him safely across is not limiting his freedom: it is facilitating it, for he, as like as not, didn't want to get squashed.

We see here that the role of the parent is one of facilitator in the cause of freedom for children. And the value of doing all this? Well, this particular definition of freedom implies that a child be free of coercion. If we take it that coercion may be defined as "being forced to enact a theory that is not active in the mind, which therefore limits the capacity for reason and creativity", we can infer that when a child is free to act as he will, he is more likely to explore theories that are active in his head. Since the thought he is enacting is the one that is at the front of his mind, he is much more likely to be able to subject this theory to rational criticism and creative growth. It seems therefore that being free to enact active theories is the quickest and most effective way to learn.

I don't know where the Sunday Times got this little nugget from, (and I strongly suspect that the accusation of pseudo-science could be rightfully hurled at it) but it nonetheless seems to represent an empirical truth: "Comparative studies show that formal learning has an efficiency rate of around 5-10%. Pupils taught through conversation and discussion remember up to 40% more". So what is the actual difference here? The difference is that a conversation (unlike formal learning) is a two-way process where the child has the opportunity to ask the questions that he wants answered, to pursue his interests, to follow his active theories. A parent who wants to facilitate a child's freedom must therefore be responsive to a child's enquiries.

Indeed a parent may perhaps be wise not only facilitate the present interests of the child, but also to offer new stuff that they think may be of further interest to the child. As David Friedman said of his homeschooling tactics, parents should "throw books at them and see which ones stick". (Incidentally, Dr. Friedman's post is well worth reading, particularly for those who worry about what kind of knowledge an unschooling child is likely to acquire, since he presents a neatly phrased argument against the notion of the usefulness of a standard curriculum.)

It is obvious from the above that helping children to live in freedom is not a matter of neglecting them and letting them run wild, as is so often assumed. Instead a child needs help to develop reason and understanding and this requires active and attentive parenting.

Another valuable component in all this is that the parent recognise their own fallibility, for not only is it possible for parents to get things objectively wrong, eg: perhaps that chocolate bar would indeed be just the right thing for little Johnny at this particular moment...(since chocolate is indeed known to be capable of improving immunity, reducing stress, making someone more alert, providing iron, being good for the heart, and if the sugar is used in high activity, it doesn't result in an insulin-induced hypoglycemia etc, etc), but we also should recognise the tentative nature of all knowledge. Afterall, we can never be sure that we have apprehended reality correctly. The principles of reason do seem to work well, but there is never any sure-fire justification for this belief. Generally speaking, humility is a useful tool when it comes to seeking to understand the thinking of a child. He may just be more right than we know!

Further, it is the case that an autonomous educator does not make any distinction between life and learning. We believe that theory acquisition should be going on all the time. Rational thought, conjecture and refutation are processes that are best applied to all areas of life. Learning is integral to the whole of life.

All of the above is meant by way of an explanation to underpin a closer answer to the original question. Since we believe that theory acquisition goes on all the time and applies to all areas of life and that freedom is an essential component of learning, why would I only allow it in certain areas of my children's lives? To suddenly restrict the possibility of freedom, is to wantonly and without reason, limit a child's capacity to learn.

The question also raises the issue of how genuine freedom can be constructed. For example, is it possible to say that a prisoner is free when he has twenty minutes to do what he likes in the prison yard? I would say "no" for though his warders may fondly imagine that they have given him a space to explore his freedom, the prisoner knows that this will be taken away again and this will colour his experience of his nominally free time. It may also be the case that he did not want to go to the yard at all, so he does not experience this time as freedom at all. Proper freedom is not something that someone else can give to someone else, since in the very act of apparently granting it, true autonomy is compromised. Rather one may help facilitate freedom for another, but for it to be real and meaningful, it must be a choice by the person themselves, and he must be able to extend it into all areas of his life.

Freedom gives a person a chance to explore big questions, the ones that he will need to face in order to decide how he should be in this world or the next. He will need to address issues such as the purpose of his life, how he can best work to meet this purpose, how he can best take responsibility for his choices. What better way to do this than as a child with the help of a loving parent? Not only that but with the chance to experience freedom in safety, children have a good shot at realising how wonderful the world can be.

For more information on theories of learning and knowledge and how they relate to parents and children, visit the Taking Children Seriously website.


Clare said...

This is wonderful - I feel sad that as not-yet-official HE'ors I can't really legitimately write a post for the Voices. Ho hum - plenty of time for all that malarky in the years to come!

Carlotta said...

Though non-official HEors you very clearly are! And of course,your recent essay on intrinsic/extrinsic motivation as it relates to parenting deals wonderfully with all these sorts of issues. I'd vote for that one going to the Carnival, even if you don't bother to wangle it to fit the question!

Clare said...

Thank you :-) I'm afraid I'm not brave enough yet for putting myself forward for things like that LOL!

naialily said...

Hi! It's funny, I just wrote a post this morning about "Conversation Education"! Glad to have found your blog! (found it searching for "unschooling" on technorati, btw!)

Carlotta said...

Naia, I wonder if you would consider entering your post for the Unschooling Voices Carnival? It is wonderful and makes important points.

Anonymous said...

Carlotta, what a wonderful reminder! It does help relieve many anxieties about the future that rise to the surface from time to time.


allan said...

Very well said, and a pleasure to read.

Having raised 5 kids in a free environment ( a couple even went to public school for a year or two at their request). It is wonderful to see that as adults they understand their world very well -- and fit into it well -- on their own terms.

Conversation, and at times active debate, helped shape both the kiddos and myself. As a parent I worked to help them discover options that enhanced their own choices.

Your article reflects that same methodology.

However, you stated it better than I could have.

Thank you

Becky said...

Lots to appreciate, even for a classical hs'er (though we're beginning to include bits and bobs of unschooling here and there). I especially enjoyed Friedman's quote about throwing books.

Ren said...

Loved your entire post immensely!!

~~~They would drop out of trees, off cliffs, eat wasps and pigeon poo, stuff their fingers in sockets, refuse to learn to read, take the TV apart, beat up their siblings, veg out on the sofa all day, set fire to themselves and the house and generally bring on the apocalypse.~~~~

This had me laughing out loud. Thanks for that! I think I'm going to read it at the Live and Learn conference when Mary Gold and I do "Parenting Mythbusters" if you don't mind.:) I'm linking this to my blog...utterly brilliant.

Ren said...


I just read your "conversation" article and agree with everyone's perfect for the carnival! Do you mind if I submit it? I'd be happy to do it if you're feeling shy.:)

kiwimumtomykidz said...

I love this quote
Or say, a child wants to get to the other side of the road, but doesn't see the on-coming bus. Catching him by the hand, and then helping him safely across is not limiting his freedom: it is facilitating it, for he, as like as not, didn't want to get squashed.

That is such a common objection to not limiting freedoms in our children.

Loved your article!!

Momma3 said...

Interesting. As I was reading your post, I was thinking to myself, "This sounds more like TCS theory than unschooling theory," and, low and behold, at the bottom of the page was a link to TCS!