Parenting for Youth Liberation
Cynthia Peters Interviewed by Tim Allen
How can parents behave in a non-oppressive way?
There is no getting around -- nor should there be -- the fact that parents have a lot of power over children. We exercise the greatest power of all, which is deciding to bring children into the world, or, as in the case of adoption, deciding to bring children into our families. Once I bring a child into my family, I continue to exercise a lot of power over her. I decide where she will live, what her name will be, who she will live with, whether she will have siblings, which community subcultures she will experience, what language she will speak, what she will eat, how often she gets a bath, and how much she will be held.
Not all of this power emanates directly from me. I am influenced by other institutions in society. My salary will help determine where I live, and therefore what community I raise my kid in, for example. How I was raised will affect how I raise my own child. My access to privilege or my sense of what my child can expect from the world will affect what I communicate to her about what she should expect. Etc.
So, as a parent, I experience many social and economic and cultural pressures which significantly affect the options I can make available to my child, her opportunities, and values. Making these institutions less oppressive is probably the single most important thing we could do to influence parents to be less oppressive towards their children. For example, removing the stress of poverty and of living in a culture that emphasizes marketplace values would liberate parents and children to create families outside the confines of financial concerns. When my daughter breaks her arm, my first thought should be concern for her well-being, not dread at how much it will cost and anxiety about how to get time off from work in order to fit in all the Dr.'s appointments. It would be nice for parents and children if we could significantly reduce the amount of time we spend negotiating the pressure to buy Disney products, conform to Disney values, and consume various forms of instant gratification. Parents would be less oppressive with children if they did not have to pass on oppressive behaviors that come with living in violent neighborhoods, near toxic landfills, and in poorly designed cities and suburbs that create overcrowding and/or isolation rather than community.
Reducing sexism would steer the family away from the being the site where gender roles are reproduced -- and instead a place where people experience attachment, comfort, nurturing, and mentoring in non-gender-specific ways. Reducing the myriad ways parents are oppressed by racism, sexism, classism, etc. would make it possible for adults to be challenged, supported, and nurtured to their full human capacity in their workplaces, communities, and organizations -- a scenario which would eliminate or greatly reduce the need to return to "hearth and home" for rejuvenation and the chance to recover a few shreds of humanity. When the private sphere is the only place that people operate according to values like sharing, caring, nurturing, and non-remunerated giving -- then there's a disastrous amount of stress on that one site.
Let's assume we are working to change oppressive institutions and thus improve parents' prospects at behaving non-oppressively. Meanwhile, we want to create families, and we want to behave well as parents. How can we do that?
Most important, I think is to acknowledge and take responsibility for the power we exercise. We can't avoid it, but we can be judicious in how we employ it, and we can use it in such a way that empowers our children as they grow.
Parents can try to structure families so that the kids are not completely and utterly dependent on them for all their emotional needs. Familial relationships determine so much about how we think we're supposed to relate to other humans. Giving our children the opportunity to experience some variety opens doors for them and empowers them at least a little to explore ways of relating that they don't see modeled in their own families.
Parents can do what they have to do to not hurt their children -- emotionally or physically.
Parents can be careful NOT to treat our kids as appendages, expressions of our own desires and unfulfilled wishes, or as little human strategies for working out our own childhood issues. On the other hand, they have to know what we expect of them. We have to offer clear guidelines, norms for behaving, and expectations around how we interact in the world, so that we raise children we like and can live comfortably and productively with, and so that we enjoy somewhat functional families.
We can prioritize developing relationships with our kids based in mutual respect, not fear. Our authority should be rooted in honestly trying to do what's best for the child. When you say to your kid, "Sure, you can play outside, but please don't cross the street," you're not arbitrarily throwing your weight around. You're looking out for your kid's best interest according to your best judgement of how safe your kid would or wouldn't be crossing the street. Ideally, your kid understands this and basically takes it for granted since you have a long track record of taking good care of him, and he, astutely, has noticed. Thus, the child can get down to the serious work of playing in the yard. If on the other hand, your track record is one of inconsistent use of power, arbitrariness, and mixed signals about how much you care, then your kid is unlikely to pay any attention to even your sensible rules because he, again astutely, has noticed that you care more about being in control, than you care about him.
Parents can listen to their kids. I don't mean we should spend 20 minutes negotiating a candy purchase, or respond to whining about having to help with the laundry. Every family should set up shared norms about candy purchases and laundry duties, and parents should help make sure the norms are basically kept or revised as necessary in whatever way the family finds it can best meet its needs. These aren't serious things after all. Whether the laundry is done once or twice a week has no great repercussions in the world. Negotiating about candy with a child is not empowering for a child. The most it yields is candy. More serious is being present for our kids as they explore the world and digest what they see around them. We need to listen, not instruct. And show rather than tell. We are behaving non-oppressively when we support them to understand, absorb information, analyze, think hard, pursue their curiosity, test their conclusions, be wrong, be right, be confused, be empowered, and show agency in the world. We are behaving non-oppressively towards our children when we role-model for them what it means to interface with the world in a resposnible way -- when we do the serious work of being adults -- attempting to affect our world, make it more just, more livable.
We would probably be less oppressive towards our kids if we were more mindful of our own problems and tensions that we bring to our role as parents. Being self-aware helps us know when we should put ourselves in a padded room to blow off steam and/or when we should look for help because some weakness makes it hard for us to do what we think is right in terms of our childrearing. Mindfulness can be painful because maybe we'd just rather not explore the places we fall short, but as parents, the consequences of our shortcomings are felt by other human beings -- small human beings who have no ability to exchange us for a set of parents with fewer flaws -- so it is extra incumbent upon us to acknowledge and deal with them.
I know you homeschool your children instead of sending them to public school. Why do you do this? And how do you think homeschooling compares to public education?
We decided to try homeschooling for personal reasons at first. Our oldest daughter just didn't seem happy in large groups - like classrooms. In kindergarten, she seemed to be fine-tuning her "tuning-out" skills, and that was not something we hoped she would get particularly good at. So, we decided not to send her to first grade.
It was quite a shock to "drop out" of school. I never quite imagined what it would mean to separate ourselves from the institution that so much shapes our days, our weeks, and the look and feel of our years. Little by little, we've gradually replaced school with our own home-grown structures. The kids have important friendships with adults who mentor them in different ways; they know lots of neighbors and community people; they do volunteer jobs for the MSPCA; the oldest is the block captain for city's recycling program. They come to meetings with me, and go to work with their dad. Every Tuesday, they spend the day working on an organic farm. They spend a lot of time playing. Occasionally, they delve into math and phonics workbooks; they keep journals and read. But most of what the "know," they've picked up through experience. They are what is known as "unschoolers."
In a large institution like a school, kids can't stray too far from the average range -- in academics or behavior. Rules, norms, remedial programs, disciplinary actions, rewards, expectations and even medications work to pull children as close to the curve as possible. Millions of children are diagnosed with learning disabilities, prescribed ritalin, bribed, punished, or just gently coaxed to stay with the program. If children stray from prescribed norms, how can a class of 30 or a school of hundreds, possibly thousands, function? Furthermore, how will children move from the educational world to the work world if they haven't learned to tolerate boredom; respond easily (if numbly) to rules, expectations and meaningless hierarchies; squash organic desires and replace them with externally generated ones; consume grades, certificates and other rewards for a job well done; meanwhile accepting the "bitter pill" explanation for all that is dull, boring, and relentlessly draining around us.
Imagine the consequences if kids were empowered to reject monotony, develop internal incentives, question authority, and refine the ability to think deeply and thoroughly, rather than skittishly and superficially, about topics that move them. They might actually question the necessity of boring rote work and bosses. They might rebel against the notion that they have more to offer society than what can be extracted from them in terms of their productivity - whether it's filling in the proper oval with their number 2 pencil (as a student), or making consumer gadgets (as a worker) and then conuming them (during their meager leisure time).
I'm not saying homeschooling is a political cure-all for everything that ails kids and schools.
Schools can and should work better for more people. Progressives should work to make schools encourage intellectual freedom and critical thinking. We should not just allow, but enthusiastically embrace a diversity in learning styles. We should drop standardized tests, punt rewards and punishments, foster internal discipline rather than external incentives, rethink the meaning of learning disabilities, and better envision exactly what schools are meant to be preparing children for.
Finally, we should consider what we lose when kids are gone all day. Some critics worry that homeschooling shields kids from the real world, but from what I can tell the opposite is true: they are plunged directly into it. As a result, I believe both sides benefit - the kids and the community. Let's reconceptualize the long school day, the after-school programs, and the extra-curricular activities. Let's find ways to make children part of the *real* real world. This will have many challenges as it involves such goals as decreasing the work week, eliminating pay discrimination so that being at home with children is not a luxury experienced by the rich, enhancing family supports so that people can make real choices about how to be in families, and addressing gender discrimination which often leaves women responsible for maintaining the family. A tall order, you say? True, but aiming high is not a bad thing to do, and probably a useful practice to model for our children.