From Kahlil Gibran ‘Children’
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts
They have their own thoughts
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
Which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
This piece of writing is often in my mind these days. I have loved it for years and am particularly fond of the version sung by Sweet Honey in the Rock. But I think what keeps popping it into my mind at the moment is that it seems to include much of what I think is strengthening my belief in autonomous learning for our children.
I realize more and more that my children’s thoughts are their own – to be shared if they so wish. I cannot see inside their heads. As adults we seem to trust children very little with their own thoughts. We are always trying to peel back their skulls and re-assure ourselves that they are learning. We must assess all the time, measure and probe. I think that the autonomous approach we are taking is teaching me to keep my mouth shut and to open my eyes and ears more.
I also can only know what my children truly desire if they tell me. In our culture children are often placed in situations where they are trying to guess what adults want and provide that - or do their damnedest not to provide it! But what the adults want is always there. We do not encourage children to look into their own hearts and find what they want to do with their lives. We offer a limited range of futures and then whittle that down still further with our endless judgements about them. By the time I was ten I thought I knew that I could never do something ‘mathsy’ or ‘scientific’. I strove to be very good at the things I was told I was good at and stopped thinking about the rest. I stopped making judgments about what I wanted to know and started to base them all on what I was ‘good at’.
I know that my children's souls do truly ‘dwell in the house of tomorrow’ - their world as adults will not be mine. I do not know what knowledge or skills they will need in the future. So how can I help them with a future I cannot even imagine? I think by nurturing their own belief in their abilities and trusting them to make their choices.
I can, of course, offer to share what I know. I can suggest interesting topics of enquiry and fun things to do. I have been alive longer than they have and I know more of some aspects of life. I can invite them to share with me as they so often invite me to share with them.
This sharing gives us the freedom of living in the present. If I allow myself to be haunted by thoughts of a future where the children's education is 'finished' and the 'product' is deficient in some way I could end up letting that spectre destroy the present. Today my children are five and eight and they might: ride bikes, play an imaginary game, read a book, play monopoly, tell me a story, watch TV, climb a tree, devise a secret code, make a sandwich, play with their friends, cuddle me, have an argument, sniff their stinky feet, and a thousand other things. My children's autonomy in their learning means that I value their choices and so am free to delight in all the things they do (except maybe their bickering!) and enjoy their childhoods.
As they get older my children can choose more formal courses of instruction if they wish to. They will (and probably already do) know that our society sets up barriers that control access to particular institutions and occupations. Some of those are in the form of qualifications and some are in the form of experience. I hope that they will find ways to get where they want to go, negotiating whatever barriers they encounter along the way.
But what I do not want to do is give my children the message that negotiating the barriers is education. Nor do I want them to believe that their worth can be measured by a set of qualifications. Both these messages are so deeply ingrained in our culture that they are part of the common currency of a modern British childhood.
Accompanying these messages is the dominant view that the stuff of learning, the books, the information, the very words and symbols are by nature boring, tedious and a punishment for ignorance that must be endured. Autonomy in their learning means that our children can discover the lie of that view. For Leo a book is a doorway to a place of such pleasure that he can't bear to let me finish his current bedtime book, for fear that the doorway will be closed. I am certain that his own enthusiasm for reading comes from the certain knowledge that books are joyous things. I know that in school he would be forced to read to order and I have seen that force kill a child's confidence and their whole relationship with the written word.
When our children are babies we encourage and applaud their discoveries, their achievements and their sheer determination. My children strove to sit, to stand, to walk, and to talk. Why should I suddenly believe that they have no idea what to do next? They do know. The world is ever more complex and living in it is often confusing. But I believe my children will find their way best if they know that I trust them to do so. I do not mean abandoning them. I will be there whenever and however they want me to be. But I do not dare to tell them that they must know what I know - because I simply cannot believe it myself.