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This upcoming series of posts has been more of a struggle to write than previous ones, in large part because the theme feels more radical than those in earlier posts. In spite of my obvious passion for championing children’s right to self-determination, my current theme—that children know what’s best for themselves—challenges me, too.

I propose that all of human life is a journey of learning about ourselves and the world. Whatever our age, we have varying levels of self and world knowledge. We acquire that knowledge by living, which is fundamentally a process of experimentation and discovery.

Often, the more we know, the better able we are to make choices for ourselves that are satisfying and rewarding. Yet, life continues to present all of us with unfamiliar or downright scary situations and choices that we must navigate with uncertain results. Sometimes we avoid the pitfalls; sometimes we don’t. And our feelings about uncharted territory are all over the map: confidence, fear, confusion, curiosity, anger, hope, doubt, excitement, despair.

It can be helpful when someone who has more knowledge in a specific area provides advice and feedback, but we have all experienced being on the receiving end of unwelcome advice that feels like interference and a lack of trust in our capacity to learn and grow. If you don’t think children also resent unwelcome advice, however well-meaning, I recommend spending a little time remembering your own childhood interactions with condescending adults who told you what to do because they knew best.

My thoughts for this series were sparked by a blog post by Mark Manson, self-described author, thinker, and life enthusiast, in Vox, “3 Destructive Things You Learned In School Without Realizing It.”

The third destructive thing he listed was “You learned to depend on authority”. At the end of that item—also the end of the piece—he wrote, “No one knows what’s right for you as well as you do. And not letting kids discover that fact for themselves may be the biggest failure of all.”

This girl was smart as a whip. When I walked by, she was MOVING to the music—hands up, head nodding, shoulders swinging. I really wanted to take her photo, so I walked up to the nearest adult and asked: “Does she belong to you?” Suddenly, the music stopped, and I heard: “I BELONG TO MYSELF.” Humans of New York

This girl was smart as a whip. When I walked by, she was MOVING to the music—hands up, head nodding, shoulders swinging. I really wanted to take her photo, so I walked up to the nearest adult and asked: “Does she belong to you?”
Suddenly, the music stopped, and I heard: “I BELONG TO MYSELF.”
Humans of New York

His statement reminded me of the slogan a co-founder and parent at The Clearwater School submitted for the school’s publicity fliers many years ago: “Who knows what’s best for your child? She does.”

I did not believe that slogan would convince parents, hunting for a better schooling experience for their children, to look more closely at Clearwater. It felt too radical, too outrageous. I assumed most parents believed that they were the ones who knew what was best for their children. A common rallying cry for parents who feel oppressed by officious people telling them what to do, or not, with their kids is that no one—not the government, not school administrators, not teachers, not child development experts—knows better than parents what is best for their children.

The idea that children can and should decide what is best for themselves seemed to me to be so far out of mainstream norms that marketing materials with that message would appear absurd, laughable even. More to the point, did I believe that slogan was true?

With little effort, contrary examples come flooding in.  A child wants to watch hours of TV or play hours of video games every day. A child wants to eat all her Halloween candy in one sitting, or refuses to eat anything but pizza or mac & cheese. A child reaches to touch a hot stove and gets a third-degree burn.

Even more tragic and horrible examples bubble up: children firing guns stored carelessly in their homes; children choosing to smoke, drink, or take drugs; car accidents caused by teenagers drag racing on public roads. Thanks to a 24-hour news cycle that obsessively focuses on myriad dangers and alarming stories, daily accounts of childhood peril pummel us. The fear of all the horrific things that could happen to our children is unbearable and jolts us into proactive hypervigilence.

When our kids are little, we do our best to prevent physical injuries, from minor scrapes to more serious things like burns or broken bones. My son’s minor childhood injuries often felt like a punch to my own gut. I consoled him, and he always recovered just fine, but sometimes I would continue to stew about the injury and wish I could have prevented it. Why was it so important to me to prevent him from experiencing any pain? If I am honest, it’s because I believed that he was incapable of recovering and coming out stronger. What made me believe that he was so fragile? Partly, it was a projection of my own (unconscious) perceived fragility. Whatever the source of my anxiety, it is shared by more and more  people in our culture.

For example, our playgrounds no longer contain traditional play structures that gave many of us thrills and pride of mastery when we were children. As a result, there is growing concern that the emphasis on playground safety interferes with children’s ability to develop their physical skills and test physical limits by taking calculated risks. It is hopeful that in a few places, particularly in Europe and some places in the U.S., adventure playgrounds have been created that allow kids to play with abandon, explore, and access tools, fire, building materials and other raw materials. Adventure playgrounds do have adult playworkers who can step in if needed, but their goal is to remain separate from children’s activities and avoid interfering as much as possible. In my opinion, even the non-intrusive presence of adult playworkers is an affront to children’s capability and demonstrates lack of trust. (In our litigious, risk-averse culture, I suspect the presence of playworkers has a lot to do with minimizing liability and insurance company payouts.)

From my current vantage point, with a grown son who is healthy, capable, and provides and cares for himself, it is easy to look back and see that it worked to allow him to chart his own course, making decisions about how to spend his time, what to eat, and when to go to bed, for example. Although I had blind spots, I was committed to trusting that he did, in fact, know what was best for himself. I had plenty of doubts, felt uncomfortable and out of control lots of times, and I didn’t always stay the course.

More about that next week.