by Aaron Browder
October 3, 2019
A common concern parents have about self-directed democratic schools — which have no assignments, classes, or “teachers” — is how kids will be exposed to new things without forced lessons. What they mean is that starting a new pursuit is hard work, but often becomes fun and interesting once you get into it. Children (like anyone) can have a hard time getting over that initial hump. For this reason, some parents force their kids to do things like piano lessons, jiu jitsu, or swimming, just for a while, until the kid has been sufficiently “exposed.” Then the kid can decide for themselves whether to continue.
I use scare quotes around “exposed” to remind us that this is different from the literal meaning of the word. If all we were concerned about was children being presented with information, there wouldn’t be a concern. After all, children today have access to many times as much information we had access to when we were kids. Any kid who spends a day on YouTube has discovered hundreds of things that exist in the world that they didn’t know about before. What kid hasn’t heard of pianos? Or karate? Or Shakespeare? Or French? People talk about these things all the time in our culture, so if your child is plugged into a community — even an internet community — you can be sure that they have heard about these things.
But that’s not what we’re concerned about, is it? We want kids to get involved in activities, delve deeply into topics, and develop real skills. In this case, “exposure” means that an adult takes control of a kid’s time for a while until they’ve learned some basic amount or developed some baseline of skill.
In Self-Directed Education, forced lessons are out of the question. Yet, free children develop all sorts of passions. Often those passions don’t seem educational in the traditional sense — think fashion, Four Square, or Minecraft — and often children are able to pursue those passions to the very end without ever needing or desiring a teacher. That doesn’t mean those interests aren’t deeply enriching. Whatever they are pursuing, if a child is pursuing it with excitement and devotion, they are growing and learning.
Is it possible for a Minecraft passion to someday turn into a career? If your child is ten years old, why are you worried about that? Childhood is not a time for training for a specific career. That’s what college is for. (And most people still don’t know what they want to do with their lives after they’ve graduated from college.) Childhood is a time for exploring and for developing general intelligence, social skills, and character skills.
I often hear people say something like, “I’m a piano player, and I never would have discovered that passion if I hadn’t been forced to take lessons.” That’s why, they say, they need to force their children to take lessons. However, for every child who is forced to take piano lessons and develops a love for piano, there are many, many more who develop a distaste for it because they were forced. Often that distaste lasts a lifetime.Childhood is a time for play, for discovering the excitement in life, for delving deep into passions. And kids can do that with video games just as easily as books, with skating just as easily as sports, with rock music just as easily as classical. Click To Tweet
When you look more deeply at people’s concerns over “exposure,” you see that it’s not so much that kids need to be exposed to new experiences, but that kids need to be exposed to “high culture” experiences (like piano, soccer, and Shakespeare) as opposed to “low culture” experiences (like drums, skateboarding, and Fortnite). We can easily see that kids get involved with “low culture” interests without being introduced to them by adults, and in some cases, after adults have tried to stop them. So, clearly, children are being “exposed” to plenty of things. They just aren’t necessarily being “exposed” to your favorite things. And that should be okay.
Childhood is a time for play, for discovering the excitement in life, for delving deep into passions. And kids can do that with video games just as easily as books, with skating just as easily as sports, with rock music just as easily as classical. They can do that by playing Four Square, collecting rocks, filming home movies, making bracelets, drawing dragons, dressing up, building tree houses, or whatever their heart’s desire turns out to be.
This doesn’t mean that free children never get interested in “high culture.” Plenty of children get excited about piano and soccer without ever being forced. That’s because everyone has different interests. Our job as parents and educators is not to change children’s interests, but to support them, whatever they happen to be.