“Institutional wisdom tells us that children need school. Institutional wisdom tells us the children learn in school. But this institutional wisdom is itself a product of schools because sound common sense tells us that only children can be taught in school. Only by segregating human beings in the category of childhood could we ever get them to submit to the authority of a schoolteacher.” ~Ivan Illich
Children are not allowed in bars, strip clubs, cannabis dispensaries, liquor stores, brothels, or casinos. They are likewise not allowed (except in small doses or for special events) on factory floors, offices, or in other work places. Most public places technically allow children, but they must be accompanied by adults, both for their own safety as well as to control their behavior so as to not irritate or offend the other adults. Even places designated “for children,” like parks, museums, libraries, playgrounds, and schools mandate that they be under the authority of a responsible adult. There was a time, not too long ago, when a 12-year-old counted as a responsible adult, but today, in most places, they are also deemed children.
Children are allowed, but stereotypically child-like behavior — running, shouting, dancing, singing, enthusiastic curiosity — is rarely acceptable. Even our schools, those supposed safe havens for children, forbid children from being children except under scheduled, tightly-controlled and monitored circumstances, which is to say they are hardly and rarely free to be children at all.
It’s as if we believe they are wild animals, feral things, always on the edge of harming themselves and others.
For most of their childhoods we confine them in prison-fortresses that we call schools with the expectation being that these institutions, beyond their charter of keeping them safe from society and society safe from them, also prepare them for the “freedom” that awaits them one day. In other words, we think we can prepare them for freedom by confining and controlling them, even going so far as to tell them what to think about, and just to be sure we test and grade them on how fully they’ve given their minds over to us.
Whether the dangers are real or not, whether our intentions are good or not, we’ve undoubtedly created a society that is almost entirely hostile to children. It’s so hostile that they can’t go anywhere or do anything without adult body guards. This should be an impossible to ignore alarm, but instead we shrug because it has come upon us so gradually, generation upon generation, that we’ve can’t hear it.
I ask, would you willingly return to school, not as you remember it, but as they are today? Would you submit yourself to the authority of a schoolteacher, not the inspiring, slyly subversive one of the movies, but one from the real world who has been randomly assigned? Would you stay in your seat? Walk in a line? Beg permission to poop? Abide by their schedule?
And this institution is the place we make compulsory for all children. If that isn’t evidence of hostility toward them I don’t know what is.
I’m not saying that individual adults are hostile toward children, although we all know that many are, but rather that it is only by the kindness and grace of certain adults, schoolteachers included, that they don’t all emerge into the world either beaten down or hostile themselves, or both. When I see videos posted on social media of teenagers lashing out at their teachers, most commenters blame the child or their parents, but I can only think, What did you expect? Hostility is a natural response to hostility. Heaven forbid any child not learn the core lesson of submissiveness: fake it until their backs are turned or, worse, just give in and be placidly obedient. Nothing in between will do.
For a brief moment, we allowed children to be free on the internet, but that place is also hostile to children.
Human society was not always like this. Life itself may have been hostile to children, but it was equally hostile to adults. When we look back on even the darkest ages of man, children were a the center of life itself, growing, learning, participating. That is where we all belong: the center.
I don’t pretend to know how we go from here to there, and backwards is always a problematic direction to point ourselves. What could a less hostile future look like? What if society could evolve into a place where children were always welcome? What would it take to make our plazas and parks and libraries into places where children could be themselves?
As social critic and philosopher Ivan Illich writes, “If society were to outgrow its age of childhood, it would have to become livable for the young. The present disjunction between an adult society which pretends to be humane and a school environment which mocks reality could no longer be maintained . . . The disestablishment of schools could also end the present discrimination against infants, adults, and the old in favor of children throughout their adolescence and youth.”
I don’t think that Illich is wrong, even if his critique is harsh, but it does beg the question of what we could grow into. I imagine that if anything is to happen, the underlying challenge is Martin Luther King’s “giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism.”
It’s too big for me. It’s too big for you. Our societal hostility towards children is a consequence and an alarm, but only to those of us who have learned to listen.
Today. Today I will set the children in my life free. I will protect them, of course, but I will fight the habit of control. I will allow them to be children, to be themselves. And while I’m at it, I’ll allow you to be you. Perhaps, today, I’ll even be myself. Today I will be proud that I am, at some level, at odds with the entire institutional structure of our society, even as I strive to love my fellow humans, adult and child alike.
Let’s do this today and see where it takes us. Maybe it’s not enough, but it’s what we have. Today, we can make society a little less hostile towards children.
Registration is now open for the 2024 cohort for my 6-week course, Teacher Tom’s Play-Based Learning. It’s for early childhood educators, parents of young children, grandparents, and caregivers who believe the radical idea that children deserve an authentic childhood centered around play and wonder. You will be both challenged and inspired as we launch into the new year. Sign up your entire “team” (discounts available) to get everyone on the same page! Click here to learn more and register.
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