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Giving Up the Power to Control
By Wendy Priesnitz

power over children“Most of us are tactful enough with other adults not to point out their errors but not many of us are ready to extend this courtesy to children.” ~ John Holt

Holt died decades ago, but this tendency for adults to ignore tact and courtesy when interacting with children is still alive and well. In the same time frame, we have learned it’s not cool to discriminate against other adults on the basis of ethnicity, economic status, gender, sexual orientation, and physical abilities. But adultism is still entrenched in our culture.

Adults still have a special status of control over kids. It’s socially acceptable for adults to make decisions for children and young people (their own and other people’s), to create rules which govern children’s day-to-day lives, and generally to tell them what to do. That manifests in ordering, yelling, directing, preaching, disciplining, demeaning, embarrassing, questioning, patting and other touching without permission, yanking, ignoring, and referring to children in the third person.

This behavior isn’t usually undertaken with abusive intent; indeed, most adults wield power over kids because they assume it’s their duty, as well as their right. Adults are thought to be entitled to these behaviors on the assumptions that they are superior to children and young people, and that they know best what’s good for the younger generation. Dealing with kids in this manner is also thought to be easier and less time-consuming than treating them with respect, tact, and courtesy.

Scratch below the surface, and you’ll find that this sort of adult disrespect is inherited. It’s most likely how we were treated as children by our parents and in our schools…and how our parents were treated by the generation before that. Most of us were raised with parents who told us what to do “because I say so.” They didn’t believe that they should explain to us children what their reasoning was. I would say they didn’t have enough respect for us to explain, because, as John Holt pointed out, they’d never treat another adult that way. Thus, we children were told what to do, when and how; if we didn’t comply, we were punished.

This is the patriarchal definition of respect with which I grew up. My mother demanded automatic respect for herself, my father, and other adults simply because they were my “superiors,” but they had none for me. On the other hand, my husband and I brought our children up with the understanding that adults earn respect from kids via their behavior, not simply their age or stage in life, or the amount of education or money they have.

The power-over treatment by adults of children is reinforced by other social institutions like school, churches, and medical systems, as well as by laws such as those that create curfews and permit spanking. The context of the adult-child relationship in our society is power, hierarchy, mistrust, and coercion.

However well-intentioned, this disrespectful mistreatment can result in lowered self-esteem for its young recipients, as well as resentment, de-motivation, learned helplessness, and even mental health problems because most people who feel powerless cannot be well adjusted – or even truly happy.

The context of the adult-child relationship in our society is power, hierarchy, mistrust, and coercion.

One of the places that adultism appears most blatantly is in our educational institutions. Most people believe that children and young people must be made to go to school and be subjected to an agenda and environment created by so-called educational experts, or else they won’t learn or become well socialized. So we have created factories in which children are processed and warehouses where they are stored until it’s convenient for adults to have them around.

Life learning families, of course, are living a different reality, one in which the archaic power-over attitudes are being overturned, not just in terms of academics but in all aspects of life. Life learners strive for respectful relationships between adults and children, where adults accept their nurturing and mentoring roles without becoming controllers and enforcers based on their size, age, personal agendas, or ability to invoke fear.

Life learners are not just rejecting the factory model of education. We are challenging a variety of agendas related to adultism and other sorts of power, such as who manages the affairs of our communities and how corporations make profits. I am chronically surprised that otherwise progressively-minded people who care about issues like self-government, environmental abuse, and overcoming corporatism and patriarchy have a blind spot about how we are really treating children.

That’s why I believe that life learners are at the leading edge of this attempt to change the definition of childhood – to respect children as whole people who are functioning members of society – and thus we are setting an example for the rest of society.

I hope that someday respectful parents and others working for children’s and young people’s rights will be able to scale up this trend to a tipping point. But arguing against adultism is difficult and not just because it’s so entrenched. Giving up power can make people fearful and leave them feeling threatened. As Edgar Friedenberg wrote in his book The Vanishing Adolescent, “[The word] ‘Teenager’ seems to have replaced ‘Communist’ as the appropriate target for public controversy and foreboding.”

The fear behind having a more respectful relationship with kids is also embodied in many of the reactions we see to media coverage of unschooling. For instance, people who have watched a few-minute clip on television have ranted that the parents portrayed are “unparenting,” and that their children will end up uneducated and therefore fit only for a job in the fast food industry. And, unfortunately, some people who are new to unschooling or are exploring what is being called radical unschooling (which is simply applying trust and respect to other aspects of life beyond academics) misinterpret lack of control to mean lack of guidance. Or they take the advice of self-styled “experts as a set of rules that must be followed instead of listening to their own intuition. That is not surprising, given the behaviors and attitudes we learned from our own parents and our own schooling experiences.

In order to defeat adultism in the broader society as we are doing in our own families, we need to continue to be present in our communities, leading with how we speak to (and about) children, and how we treat them. This means that we need to be mindful of our own actions, which can, because nobody is perfect, fall off the edge from time to time. And we need to remember to put our kids’ needs and opinions first, rather than bother with what other adults want, expect, or think.

One of the more important gifts that life learning parents give to our kids – predominantly by example and experience – is learning how to make good choices, independently. In this Life Learning article, Robyn Coburn notes that the regular adult world is far less filled with rules than the world of any ordinarily parented child. And, she explains, what regulates the adult world is mostly a set of customs and laws based on principles, which “engage the reasoned co-operation of most of us.” So, too, life learning children are helped to choose and understand the principles on which their family life and society are based – rather than those unexplained “because I say so” rules that encourage short-term, mindless obedience.

Life learning parents know that there are many other ways in which adults can communicate respect to children, such as giving them our full attention, which includes making eye contact rather than physically looking down on them and – as John Holt once put it – not talking “cutesy-wootsy” to them.

In his book Unconditional Parenting, Alfie Kohn notes that “controlling parents” are actually conveying to their kids that they love them conditionally – that is, only when they achieve or behave. Respected kids feel loved unconditionally, and comfortable in their own skin. And that will help them grow up with their self-esteem and confidence intact, ready to take on any opportunities and challenges life offers.

Wendy Priesnitz is Life Learning Magazine’s founder and editor. She is the mother of two grown daughters who lived and learned without school in the 1970s and '80s, as well as the author of thirteen books.

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