Leaving kids alone to learn

My youngest is in college now. Although she took several community college classes as a younger teenager, she was never in school full time and was able to self-select courses based on their content and professors. As a result, most of her experiences with teachers were positive. Now, she’s learning that not all teachers are supportive.

It’s a sad fact that our cultural view of education says children can’t learn on their own, shouldn’t be allowed to make decisions about how they spend their time, and always need the guidance of trained adults in order to acquire knowledge and skills.

My daughter wasn’t raised that way, so dealing with professors who treat their students with well-meaning condescension, authoritative stances, and in some cases downright disrespect is unfamiliar to her.

Performing ‘King Lear’ (photo by Christian Erickson)

In the course of our discussion, the subject of the entirely youth-run theater company my daughter founded when she was 13 came up. “I don’t think I would have done that if adults had been involved,” she said.  I asked why. “Because they would either have told us how to do it, or told us we couldn’t do it.” The reality might have been more nuanced, and certainly not all young people would have the same reaction as my daughter, but I’d like to unpack that comment.

Part one–yes, adult teachers would have told them how to do it, because that’s their job, isn’t it? Depending on the style, personality, and approach of the teacher, that could work great, but in this case my daughter would have immediately lost interest, because she already had ideas about what she wanted to do and adult authority would have messed with that.

Fulvio Bugani-7091
Tinkering with Shakespeare (photo by Fulvio Bugani)

Part two–well, yes, adults telling kids they’re too young, too inexperienced, or too incapable happens all the time. Even when it’s meant to help, the message is clear: you can’t do this on your own. Even little kids are astute enough to know when they’re being talked down to, but after it happens enough times it’s easy to start believing it.

How much do we hold kids back by trying to “help” them? A lot, I’d say. Especially now, when school is increasingly about quantification and testing and kids’ year-round lives are often more and more structured. In other times or places, kids might spend their days in school, but at least there would be afternoons and summers for free play. Think of your own stories, or stories you’ve heard about your friends, parents, or grandparents tinkering with mechanics, building things, making art, and generally figuring out how to do stuff. With teachers around, those experiences might not have happened at all. Certainly, they wouldn’t have happened in the ways they did, ways that, regardless of the quality or characteristics of any end result, contributed to significant amounts of learning, self-knowledge, executive function skills, confidence building, and downright enjoyment.

When my daughter first came to me and said, “I want to do Hamlet in the backyard this summer,” I didn’t automatically believe it would happen. To be perfectly honest, I had my doubts. Since I knew the process was one my daughter wanted to initiate and the ultimate product didn’t really matter, I just said, sure, go for it, and left her alone to proceed as she saw fit.

Hamlet did happen, and turned out to be the beginning of something larger. If it hadn’t, that would have been fine, too. My daughter would still have learned a great deal on her own terms, and embarked on a self-initiated journey laden with multiple levels of meaning. Far from a mistake or failure, one way or another it would have been an experience that led to whatever she chose to do next.


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