Can our children truly be in charge of their lives?

Can our children be in charge of their education? Should they make big decisions about their own lives? Do these things truly belong to them, and them alone?

I don’t think there is a straightforward answer to that, but I would like to say that overwhelmingly, yes, they should.

Realizing this was a slow process for me, rather than a sudden realization, and I will admit there are still moments when I think, Wait a minute, are we sure this is right? It’s easy to doubt and second-guess yourself when the overwhelming narrative is: Children are incapable of making big decisions about their life.

My children are 7 and 9. During their early years, I did a lot more structuring and guiding for them. I set up an environment that I felt would encourage them to make wise decisions. We read books and talked about the things we believed in (we still do this!). We had a much stronger rhythm to our days, and more boundaries in place.

Now that they are both past the early years, we’ve had to renegotiate so many things, especially with my eldest.

Fundamentally, I truly believe that children are very capable of understanding a situation, and coming up with a way forward. It’s just that often, the way forward may not be the sort of outcome or compromise the adult was looking for.

And I think we need to be honest about that. Giving children a real say in things will probably mean they will choose to do things we may not be okay with. This can be confronting for us, because we were probably raised differently to this and would expect children to always defer to adults.

It can also be confronting because we may have strong feeling about things, such as compassion, collaboration, and equity – and we don’t feel we can dive into a place where everything is relative, and anything goes.

I think there can be a middle way. For starters, it would be helpful if we adults found a way to open our minds a little and consider that our way may not be the only way. It would also help if we learned to express our own needs in a way that was less critical and judgmental, and less about controlling our children, and more about helping them realize that we are all interdependent. That we can’t all do whatever we want, because we live in a family, community, society. I don’t think these two things – opening our minds, and maintaining a sense of togetherness – are mutually exclusive.

Because fundamentally, and more importantly even than whether they are capable, our children deserve to be treated with the same respect we give ourselves and other humans in our lives. And this means also granting them a degree of ownership over the decisions about their lives. Every family will negotiate this in different ways, and it will also depend on the individual child; for us, I feel strongly that my children need to be given as much ownership over their education and their lives as we can possibly work with as a family.

For us, this means the freedom to be self-directed in their learning. It means laying it out there for them, a bit like this:

You are in charge of your learning, you get to decide what to learn, when to learn, how to learn; I will be here, supporting, guiding and advising when you need me to. I may have to step in at times, but I will always do this respectfully, with consideration for your feelings and opinions. As long as you live with your family, we will demand the same respect from you as the respect we give you. But ultimately, your life belongs to you! You get to try, fail and try again. You get to decide where you’re going to go with it. Nothing you do or don’t do will ever change our love for you, but it might change the trajectory of your life. Own it.

Crucially, for us, it hasn’t been the case of putting it out there and then wiping our hands of it and walking away. That would be way too simplistic and easy, and I’m not sure it would work. Everyone’s lives and education and interests are a constant conversation in our home – we talk about what feels right and how we know it feels right, what we love about things and what we don’t, how sometimes we need to do things we don’t love so much, and how often we do things because it’s what we feel is expected of us, everyone else is doing them, or whatever. We talk about beliefs, values, differences and emotions. We are all involved in each others’ growth.

This helps us parents also know that if all our child does for a week is lego, that doesn’t mean they will be playing lego for the rest of their lives. It gives us perspective. If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that children’s lives happen in intense bursts of curiosity and interest, and that often these pass and give way to something else, just as intense and consuming. Sometimes things also stick. Often this can be a good thing.

It’s been amazing to watch our children take this on as their responsibility. They have both grown and learned so much from being put in charge of their own lives, as much as has been possible. My 9 year old especially, has grown so much. She has embraced the things she loves and experimented with some new things, and made a conscious decision to find a way to enjoy things she believes might be useful for her in future, but which she’s not crazy about right now.

Many people have written about how giving young people choice will ultimately mean lower levels of stress and better outcomes for them. It is widely appreciated that more choice and ownership over a life that can often feel controlled and restricted, is a good thing.

For me though, it’s more than that. It’s about appreciating that children are people too – they deserve to be treated with the same respect as adults, they deserve to have inalienable rights, they deserve a substantial say in their lives. And if I believe that my children deserve this, I must also believe that all children deserve this.

Because it’s an incredible privilege to be able to give our children this kind of freedom, and we should also acknowledge this. There is a huge amount of privilege in believing that you can live without school, and still do well in life. There is privilege in one of us being around a lot, to facilitate it. There is privilege in pulling out of a system and forging our own path.

Not all families will feel they can do this, and get away with it. But I do believe that they should be able to, to the extent that they wish to, whether they are school-going or not. And I think that belief is the point: I won’t only live my life in a way that allows my children to experience respect, liberation and community; I’ll also live it in a way that supports the right of all children to experience it.

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