Today, at swim lessons, I had an annoying encounter with the swim instructor that reminded me of how much we, as a society, think children aren’t people overall, that their opinions don’t count because they aren’t fully formed yet and need to be molded into an adult. Anyway, I always ask my son if he wants to go underwater before we do dips in the pool – and I wait for a response. Halfway through today, he told me he was all done, so we stopped doing dips for the last couple minutes. After, the instructor told pointed out that as the adults, we shouldn’t phrase commands as questions to our children because it teaches them they have a choice when they aren’t capable of making one yet. He stressed that this piece of well-meant advice was from the education he has been receiving on how to teach small children. I didn’t say anything, because we see him for 30 minutes once a week – who cares, really? And, a pool full of toddlers is not the place for a debate. Furthermore, what he actually said was true – you shouldn’t phrase commands as a question, it just doesn’t apply in this case, because it wasn’t a command. Inside, I was irritated. Of course he has a choice! He’s demonstrated very clearly that he knows what I’m asking, and has the vocabulary to say more, all done, no more, yes and no quite easily. I think it is much more harmful to teach him that he doesn’t have a choice, when he should – how would you like to be dunked underwater for no reason if you didn’t want to be? If for 4 weeks he refused to go underwater and I felt it was inhibiting his water safety, I might change it to a command instead of a question, but for right now – he is cooperative until he has had enough and I feel that should be respected. Teaching him that his cooperation is rewarded and that his opinion matters seems to me like it will go a lot farther towards promoting good behavior and developing a relationship of trust between us than not taking into account his feelings about what we’re doing in the pool.
“Children are born persons.” This is principle one of Charlotte Mason’s system of education and I have been reading about it lately to prepare for a study group one of my sisters-in-laws is hosting tonight. It seems like a really obvious statement, right? Everyone knows that children are people – but as a society we don’t treat them as people. We talk down to them, simplify our language, tell them what they can and cannot like, and generally feed them mental garbage. Our education system is definitely like this – in school we teach excerpts from good books, we set standards and assume they all have to meet the same mold, we dictate who they should be, how they should behave and what they should know based on their age. We tell them what to think and then are amazed when they reach the higher levels of education and do not know how to think for themselves. After years of completely ignoring the fact that children are capable of really really good thoughts, we expect them to share their thoughts and still think that those thoughts have value. I’ve been irritated by this since I was a child, and I distinctly remember looking up to certain people who treated me with respect even though I was young.
To clarify, I know that children are less mature and have less knowledge and life experience – I don’t recommend we let our children have total freedom. My 19 month old regularly throws temper tantrums, tries to touch hot things, wanders too close to the street, and is pretty willing to run straight into the water even without his life jacket on – he doesn’t know enough not to yet. He IS still a person though who is capable of making some choices, of telling me what he wants, of coming up with new ideas, fun games and contributing positively to life. He is capable of putting his pajamas in the hamper every morning, and while I’m not willing to fight with him over this yet on the rare morning he isn’t excited to do it, I generally expect him to do so. As a part of the family, he needs to know his contributions, even as small as one piece of clothing in the laundry, matter. It doesn’t save me any work, it takes twice as long for him to carry his pajamas to the hamper under my supervision, but he is SO PROUD of himself, because he knows he is being useful, and that is something I want to instill in him. I don’t want to tell him to go play by himself while I clean up after him – that is counterproductive if I want him to be a capable adult someday.
It isn’t just his abilities that matter, though. Charlotte Mason also stresses that children need lots of free play to be allowed to learn about themselves and trust in their capabilities. This is something I believed before I started learning about her principles of educating young people. My son is really good at playing outside, he loves it – “outshide! outshide!” is a refrain you can hear at all hours of the day in our house no matter the weather and I try to foster that. I find though, that if I sit and be boring or try to read, he gets bored pretty quickly and wants interaction. If, on the other hand, I go outside and start weeding the garden, he usually starts out next to me helping and then slowly wanders away to play at whatever game he has invented while pulling weeds up. Recently he discovered you can knock leaves off trees with a stick and the memory of that belly laugh will stay with me forever. Simply by being productive and present I end up fostering independent play and his imagination – it is good motivation to actually get up and weed my garden.
Today’s conversation at the pool, and the reading I’ve been doing on Charlotte Mason’s first principle have just served as a reminder to respect my son, and I am grateful for that, I guess that’s all I’m trying to say.