If you want your child to adjust to school, don’t respectfully parent

There’s this consequence of respectful parenting that finds some parents in a difficult spot; children who develop in a respectful environment become less compatible with mainstream compulsory schooling. You see, when you honour somebody’s autonomy and worth, they of course also come to value it. And when somebody has a strong sense of self, it is much harder to acclimatise to the arbitrary conditions of compulsory schooling.

Mainstream compulsory schooling is at best authoritative and at worst authoritarian. I mean firstly, you have to be there. Then there is the part where you have to be doing what you are told to be doing. And let’s not forget, there is a whole ream of rules from what to wear to what you can bring to eat and also expectations such as to what medium you will write in and where you begin the letter “a”. And when you do not abide? Oh yeah, there’s punitive consequences from “failing” to being detained. Yeah, status checks out.

A child who has lived in an authoritarian environment can be compliant because the alternative usually involves the situation becoming unsafe for them (physical or verbal or emotional abuse under the guise of punishment). Or they rebel because they’re seen as a problem either way and life generally just consistently sucks for them so what’s the point? It really is a rock and a hard place when you have to decide between avoiding parental abuse by abusing yourself (living against your internal ideals) or avoid abusing yourself at the consequence of parental abuse.

I should warn though that when you devalue a person so much, they can become ambivalent towards existing (I mean, I suppose you could bring the threat of hell into the equation) so it can help to balance your fear based tactics with some rewards and incentives. Just keep in mind that this approach can be a fairly high risk, high “reward” scenario, how much are you willing to pay for the power of fear? Well, how much are you willing to let your child pay might be more accurate.

A child who has lived in an authoritative environment, is conditioned to believe they are controlled externally “for their own good”. They accept school under this same premise. It has been communicated many times in many ways that adults are the ones who make the decisions (even about and for you) because you cannot be trusted so that even if the child doesn’t necessarily agree, they are afraid to object. They become compliant not because they understand the value of the choice but because their trust in their own perspective has been undermined (hmm, sounds a lot like gas-lighting doesn’t it?).

This isn’t exactly intentionally manipulative; parents genuinely believe this version of “truth” mostly because it is also the one they grew up with. And in the end, you know, who really cares to consider what motivates a child to be obedient as long as they remain convenient right? These children are generally speaking, pretty damn convenient for school. They tend to adjust well as it is a continuation and reinforcement of their prior experience and they can actually believe you’re doing them a favour (at least in the short term) because you’ve conditioned them with a cocktail that combines “I love you so of course I’m doing what’s best for you” with a heavy dose of “you can’t trust your own instincts and capabilities anyway so my control is justified”.

Children are not resilient; they are adaptive. In other words, they don’t simply ‘bounce-back’: they re-shape themselves. — Robin Grille

A child who has lived in a respectful environment? Yeah, it’s going to be hard to reconcile the reality they live at home where they are autonomous and trusted with the one that they are required to endure at school. It doesn’t feel right or fair or okay; one might even say a child resisting schooled control is showing signs of healthy self worth.

This was me. And school was very difficult. I have so much respect and admiration and love for my parents but yes, school was very difficult for me, I didn’t ever quite fit and I didn’t want to. For the longest time, I questioned if it was perhaps a fault within me that caused my struggles, looking around observing other’s blissful ignorance. But I now understand it was a strength to resist; people around me were not assessing the situation as valid, they weren’t asking the same questions, they didn’t even realise they could.

Some of our children, it turns out, are more like pigeons and squirrels, and some are more like bears.  Some of them adapt to the institutional walls we put around them, and some of them pace till their paws bleed. — Carol Black

But perhaps the reality is far more sinister than this quote first appears; how well a child adjusts to a cage seems to come down to how effectively you’ve conditioned them to forget their humanity.

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11 Comments

  1. “But perhaps the reality is far more sinister than this quote first appears; how well a child adjusts to a cage seems to come down to how effectively you’ve conditioned them to forget their humanity.”

    Wow! You nailed it! Just posted to my local unschooling group.

  2. My experience as a parent has so far been pretty good with school, although neither of our children has ended primary school yet. I suspect that may change as our children draw neared to hypocritical grownup land. That is, our daughter is someone who rightly demands reasons why she is being asked to do something, and on the whole we have found teachers respectful of this. Indeed I have met very few teachers whose attitude to children is not both respectful of children and adorable to the observer. Most of my daughter’s teachers have been young – rather younger than the 40 to 50 year old typical power broker; teachers are not respected in our (Australian) culture, so perhaps there is a silver lining to this in that younger teachers empathize with children who reject arbitrary authoritarianism. That said, I think a valid reason to give to children for compliance is to make them aware that the system isn’t perfect, that something can be simply a silly rule that one has to follow to reap the benefits of schooling – both my children love to learn and my daughter in particular gets very grump during the school holidays – even though she clearly has fun with us on our family holidays, somehow we’re not quite up to the intellectual stimulation she can find at school. Teach them to expect and deal with imperfection – this is an important lesson. Teach them also a sense of humor – let them laugh at the hypocrisies of the grown-up world and what it sometimes asks children to do (I’m thinking now of the line “…. and the quaint and curious costumes that we’re called upon to wear” from Tom Lehrer’s “Proud to be a Soldier”). Teach them also to pick battles: it is more than right to rebel against injustice and indeed essential to be an authentic person, but do you want to channel energy into fighting a school uniform rule when you could be using that energy to rebel against something that really does need to be torn down for its injurious impact on others or the World around us.

  3. Staying ‘seated’ is another insidious (and likewise overlooked) rule. A student’s head has to remain upright and centered, the school hopes this will help guarantee a quite literal (spoon) feeding of information. A sentiment that conveys that the student’s body (and their confidence of personal discovery) is mainly superfluous –that their physical body is just another anchor for (passive) knowledge. Which not only strips students of their impetus, but also says they can’t (or worse wouldn’t want to) understand themselves, or the world. They cannot experience the joy of active, self driven knowledge, exploration, the manipulation of tools and embodied expression (which more seen as a silly ‘play’ time or an ‘extra’ curriculum). Our specie’s triumph is said to be the invention of tools — that we took the literal reigns (through the glory of an opposable thumb) and empowered ourselves. Yet in a classroom you are just another “brain,” only capable of staring at an endless ream of text.

  4. This hits the spot. A failed school pupil myself decided mid twenties to go inside as a bit of a maverick. A disobedient teacher. Survived 25 yrs before deciding I had become an agent of the state. Still offered a “good cop” alternative mostly. After 6 schools in UK and NZ had seen enough. Can never beat the system but can be a kind person to the needy. At 53 had enough. Back to the”real world” and a far less stressful life. Good article. Spread the word.

  5. I can’t believe it. This is me too. It genuinely worries me and I don’t know how to live my life now even as an adult. I am a parent and I don’t know how to approach raising my children. I’m just trying to do the right thing but sometimes it seems a choice between raising good free people and safe “happy” people.

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