As an adult, if you want to learn about something, how do you go about doing it? You might read an article, watch a video, ask an expert, just try it out and see what happens, or some combination of those things. You might devour book after book on a topic that fascinates you. You might decide to take a class or join a club in order to improve your skills and practice with others with similar interests.
With the freedom to learn however they’d like, adults are able to choose the method that best fits their needs. Adults can also decide they are no longer interested in a certain activity or topic if it’s simply not for them. Adults can take up an interest for a time, then set it aside, then come back to it, then set it aside (I’m looking at you, crocheting). Adults have the freedom to practice something without being berated, humiliated, or judged for their mistakes (unless they are into that sort of thing). If an adult needs a new skill (like how to use their new phone, or the new app for their bank, or their coffeemaker) they read the directions, or use trial and error, or ask someone,
or whatever their preferred method is to figure it the fuck out.
They have the freedom to discard things that don’t work but equally have the freedom to pick those things up at a later time if the situation changes.
Setting aside the issues of poverty or abuse, if an adult feels uncomfortable with an authority figure or situation, they can pick their happy ass up and leave. If an adult in a healthy relationship has an issue with their partner, they raise their concerns, talk it out, and apologize if things get heated. Adults in healthy relationships work together to find compromises that work for everyone. Adults in healthy relationships don’t hit or yell at each other. Adults in healthy relationships help support each other and don’t keep score about who does what for whom. If they feel the relationship is lopsided, they discuss it with their partner and find a solution that works for everyone.
Healthy adults are not blindly obedient to people claiming to be authority figures; they require proof of authority, either through credentials or experience. Healthy adults are not obligated to passively receive verbal or physical abuse. Ideally, they can advocate for themselves and seek out help or remove themselves from dangerous or unpleasant situations. In a healthy relationship everyone’s needs are met, and everyone’s voice is heard.
If all or even most of that is true, why the hell aren’t we raising our children that way?
How do we get from the ideal way adults live and interact to the way most people treat children? Why do so many adults struggle with having healthy relationships? Is it possible that treating our children as passive receptacles of information who are allowed little to no opinion about their lives creates adults who don’t know how to interact with one another? Is it possible that ignoring the way human beings really learn creates adults that might long for a different life but don’t know how to adapt in order to make it happen? In many homes and schools children aren’t allowed to express discomfort, eat when they are hungry, walk around if they need to stretch, or change activities when they are no longer interested. They do not have the opportunity to become experts in their areas of interest unless those happen to align with what an authority figure values.
They have zero practice doing the things we value in successful, healthy adults.
Let’s face it, humans are naturally inquisitive until we fuck it up. We discourage kids from making messes or rolling around in the dirt or asking so many goddamn questions. We don’t let them say no and we don’t let them ask why. We manipulate them by punishing them when they make mistakes and praising and rewarding them when they wipe their butts or draw a triangle.
What if we just didn’t?
What if we treated children like the adults we respect? If they say horrible things when they are in distress, comfort them and talk it out later. If they make a mistake, help them. If they completely fuck something up, empathize and help find a solution.
There are families all over the world that have stepped back from traditional authoritarian parenting and educational methods. Some families apply these principles only to schooling, and some apply them only to their parenting, but I find unschooling and respectful parenting to be inextricably intertwined. Radical unschooling, whole life unschooling, life-learning… there are multiple labels for a lifestyle that boils down to treating children as human beings whose feelings and interests are valuable. Children are deserving of respect simply because they are human beings, not lifeless piggy banks we plunk knowledge into. They need guidance and safety but also the freedom to explore their interests, test boundaries, and practice healthy social skills.
If you’ve never seen kids raised this way, you have no idea what children can do if we get out of their way.
They are inquisitive and kind and thoughtful and creative and joyful. They aren’t sneaky or bullies the second they are out of adult sight, and they advocate for themselves and people around them. They don’t have any of the negative feelings associated with learning, and they are doing it all the time. They’re nice. These are not characteristics you can wrench from a human being with brute force. You cultivate them through a lifestyle that creates the conditions in which they can grow.
If you want to learn more about radical unschooling, respectful parenting, or different forms of self-directed education, here are some resources and blogs I like, or you can do some good old-fashioned Googling: