The Private Lives of Children

Parents of children who attend a free democratic school go through a process of reexamining certain cultural biases that are internalized through their own early childhood development. This can be a somewhat painful and emotional process for parents because confronting their own internalized oppression can send them into a deep state of disequilibrium. This is completely normal, and so it is good to begin by having compassion for ourselves in these matters. The beautiful thing about this process is that it gives us opportunity to discharge our own wounds from our childhood experience and work to create more healthy developmental environments for our children and generations that follow.

Think back to when you were a child. Did you feel respected by adults? Did you feel you had rights equal to adults? Did you feel like your decisions about your time, your body, and your interests were honored? There’s nothing abnormal about answering ‘no’ to these questions, because that is the common experience of children, both then and now. But stop and think about these questions for a moment. Can you see that these questions could also be answered in the negative by someone who is enslaved?

It can be a shocking realization that the experience of childhood is quite like, and in some cases legally is, an 18 year long period of slavery. For this reason, parenting often bends towards paternalism, which I will define as the policy or practice on the part of people in positions of authority of restricting the freedom and responsibilities of those subordinate to them in the subordinates’ supposed best interest. Paternalism, in turn, breeds a cultural assumption that children are property and that parents have a responsibility to compel their children to work hard, do what they are told, and to never dissent. This slavish mindset is known as internalized oppression. It is a voice inside our heads that makes us want to please authority figures more than ourselves.  It is a psychological framework that is as old as patriarchy, and it is the antithesis of why I founded the Open School.

If this all makes you feel uneasy and somewhat disgusted, that’s understandable. When we consider that paternalism operates under the guide of affection, we might begin to see how even though we may have felt love for our parents and vice versa, we were often treated like property (and that this might also be true sometimes in our relationships with our own children). We were told where to go, what to work on, what to think. We had no inherent rights. And we had no privacy. Our business was our parents’ business because they were in control of what happened to us. And in their eyes, they were doing all this in our own best interest.

I want to focus today on the issue of privacy. Because of our conditioning, we tend to think that children should not be allowed to have private lives, separate from their parents. Parents tend to think that knowing every detail about their child’s every encounter translates to a loving involvement, a healthy relationship. But think about this for a second. Do you tell your parent every detail about your private life? Do you tell them about your social problems, your secret desires, or a detailed history of your daily life? If you have a problem at work, do you systematically report it to your parent? I’m hoping and assuming the answer is ‘no’ because you probably have a healthy sense of boundaries as it relates to your adult relationships. You probably value your privacy and wouldn’t ever want to divulge all your thoughts and feelings to another person, especially if that person has nearly unilateral power in deciding what your life will be like.

The right to privacy is an essential part of our school. Privacy means that children decide what to share and what not to share with their parents. The staff are trained to not report to parents on the behavior of their children because they are there to protect the child’s rights, including the right to privacy. The only time when a staff member will report to a parent is when a child has been suspended. We believe that the right to privacy is protected up until the point when the child transgresses in a way that warrants suspension. At this point, a staff member is nominated by the School Meeting to call the parent and to explain the incident that led to suspension. The point of suspension is to clearly draw a line in the sand that explains, to both the child and parents, that a specific behavior is intolerable in the school and, if not changed, could cost him his place in the school community. For this reason, it is important for the parent to understand the nature of the transgression so that they can engage in meaningful dialogue with their child.

Notifying parents of the transgression is not a veiled way of asking for punishment at home; it is an invitation for conversation. The school needs parents to support and trust in the school and its’ process for this conversation to be fruitful. Ask your child what happened, why they behaved that way, if they think they can change the behavior, and what kind of support they might need? Open up a dialogue to explore whether the child still chooses the Open School and if they are willing to do what needs to be done to alter their behavior at school. The thing that you must not do, is coach your child into saying the “right thing.” When parents attend parent conferences, they are there to witness their child taking responsibility for their actions, not as a stage mom reminding their child to smile and say the magic words. When I suggest opening a dialogue, what I’m really talking about is asking questions and listening without judgment, therefore allowing your child to make his own decisions.

Parents have an empathic connection to their children and the feeling of being ‘out of the loop’ or ‘left out in the dark’ can feel really frustrating. Feeling as if the school is not reporting on your child’s behavior prompts the big temptation of finding alternative sources of information. And the easiest source is your own child. I’d like to invite you to think about your interactions with your child and whether you are fully honoring their privacy? Do you routinely ask them questions about what they do everyday? Do you routinely ask them about whether they are having conflict? Do you insert yourself into their private lives by the force of your parental status? Does your child feel as if he as a choice in whether to answer your questions or not? Developmentally, a severe lack of privacy in early life often leads to a rough adolescence, where children forcibly establish their private lives through lying and obfuscation of the truth. Allowing children to have their own private lives doesn’t mean they won’t talk to you, it just means they’ll talk to you when they want to. If you trust your child and trust the community of the school, you should not feel as if you have to know everything.

That being said, I understand why most parents want to know everything about their child’s life. The combination of fear-based parenting, unrealistic parental expectations, and pressure from the culture is a potent mix. Over and over again, parents conflate their child’s success and productivity with their own (again, remember the slavery paradigm), and this conflation then compels the parent to force the child to meet their own expectations. But this is not freedom. And if your response to this idea is that children shouldn’t be allowed to have privacy or that your rights as a parent trump your child’s rights as an individual, then perhaps this is not the right school for you.

Moving forward, I’d like to invite all members of this community, staff, kids, and parents, to be more aware of the private lives of children. I get asked a lot of questions by parents and I’ve noticed that it puts me in a really awkward situation where I am forced to choose between satisfying the parent and respecting the rights of the child. Moving forward, I’m going to work harder at responding to these questions by inviting you to ask your child if it is really important for you to know, but I hope you will ask in a way that allows your child to choose whether she wants to answer your questions.

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