Children’s ability to learn experientially through day-to-day living is the foundation of what happens in democratic schools and unschooling homes alike. Part of that experience is kids doing real work in the real world, motivated by their own real interests and goals. It is not pseudo work where kids are “allowed” to “help” adults or where they pretend to do real work with the aid of toy tools.
Unfortunately, there are few places where children can experience the adult world in that way. Most children – and even many homeschooled ones – don’t have nearly enough opportunities to be with adults who are doing their own thing in the real world and not, as John Holt once put it, “just hanging around entertaining or instructing or being nice to children.”
The working world of adults is not very accessible to children because we fear they will get hurt, get in the way of or slow down production, or abuse or break the equipment. But in my experience, that has not been the case. Take my own family as an example.
Our unschooled daughters Melanie and Heidi (now 35 and 37) grew up living, learning and working in the midst of our busy home-based publishing business. They had access to all the tools of that business and never abused them. They mimicked the careful manner in which we used those tools and respected them as necessary for making our family’s living. More importantly, they used those tools in creating their own businesses, which we respected in return.
But one of my friends, who also happened to be a writer, was horrified to discover that our children were able to use my typewriter, then my word processor, then later my computer, as well as various photocopiers, typesetters and other related equipment. She said her kids would wreck hers for sure if allowed anywhere near them. Unfortunately, she wasn’t able to trust her kids enough to test that theory.
There are many opportunities for children and young people to learn in and be of service to the real world. They include volunteering with community organizations, participating in their parents’ businesses or at their workplaces, working for pay or as apprentices at neighborhood businesses and running their own enterprises.
Although I don’t want to romanticize the past or ignore abuses against children, at other times and in other places, children had or are given the opportunity to do real work at their parents’ side, as well as on their own accord, and to be involved in the life of their communities. In our more complex society, this same type of opportunity and respect for children’s abilities is still possible if we all share a sense of responsibility for helping develop the minds and attitudes that will lead us into the future. Today, no one has all the experience and information necessary to prepare young people for a rapidly developing future. But we can share our skills and experiences with our children or take on other people’s kids as apprentices in order to pass along our knowledge and attitudes.
Unfortunately, that sort of real world learning experience is often easier to describe than to arrange. A group of parents came together in a community park to build a series of cob structures housing a sink, cooking fireplace, baby-changing station and, ultimately, a composting toilet with a rammed earth foundation. (Cob is a traditional style of construction that uses a mixture of sand, straw, clay and water and is people-friendly, low-tech and community-building.) Aside from filling a need for those facilities in the park, the project was designed to offer people of all ages a chance to learn how to build low impact shelter. But the municipal bureaucracy decided to enforce labor code regulations, which required a six-foot-high fence and excluded the participation of children.
Georgie Donais, a life learning mom who coordinated the project, devised a “workaround” whereby people mixing cob materials on tarps were located outside the fence and only work-booted adults were allowed inside the fence. Unfortunately, besides segregating people by functions, this relegated children to the mixing function and prevented them from being involved in some of the more exciting jobs like shoveling, hauling materials or filling bags of dirt. Georgie, trying to see the situation through the bureaucracy’s eyes, admits, “I imagine it is a truly strange thing to be asked to listen to and support some woman who wants to – with barely any money and very few power tools, but with many bare feet and children involved – create a building out of mud that houses a toilet.”
That “strange thing” is something our children need much more of, especially if the adults can sort out the mindless bureaucratic requirements from the necessary safety concerns. Kids need the sense of accomplishment that comes from being trusted with a real job to do in the real world. They benefit from the increased self-esteem that comes from participating – at whatever level – in a functioning group. Everyone benefits when kids develop the confidence that accompanies being in control of themselves and of their surroundings. And they don’t need the sort of “protection” that results from lack of adult trust and preparation and that keeps them sitting on the sidelines and away from meaningful work.
Aside from safety, there are other reasons for sidelining children. Showing respect for a child’s developing skills takes patience. Doing a task ourselves is usually easier and more efficient than allowing the time needed for a child to do it. Children’s results might be not good enough for the satisfaction of perfectionist adults. And some people just underestimate what a child can do.
However, personal empowerment begins with realizing the value of our own life experience and potential to affect the world. Our children deserve the opportunity to be part of – and learn from – the daily lives of their families and communities.
This essay appeared in the book Life Learning: Lessons from the Educational Frontier (The Alternate Press, 2009).
Photo by Lewis Hine. Three pickers going home from work. Smallest one not quite large enough to get work. Parker Mills, Masschusetts, USA. Sept 1911.