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Because I Said So: Adult Privilege and a Society Against Children

Because I Said So -
Adult Privilege and a Society Against Children

Written by
Sara Schmidt
Sara Schmidt

Sara is a writer, artist, activist, and unschooling mom from Missouri. The former editor of YouthNoise, she has written for The Whole Child Blog, Teaching Tolerance, The Institute for Democratic Education in America, BluWorld, Ecorazzi, and dozens of other blogs, printed materials, and nonprofit organizations. She loves mythology, fantasy and YA lit, and generally making messes with her family.

“Take this to the dirty clothes basket,” I remark absently to my seven-year-old, holding up my dusting cloths. She looks up from the incredible secret compartment LEGO project she’s in the middle of building, and I cringe to myself. “I’ve got it; you keep working!” She grins at me, shakes her head and continues to build something I will have trouble figuring out later – which is one of the reasons she loves it so much.

How it must feel to have other people interrupting your work, your day, all of the time with requests that have little to do with you! My mother used to call, “Somebody get the door,” or answer the phone, or get me a drink, when she got home from a long day of work. I was the oldest; “Somebody” was my name. I remember hating having to stop reading, or drawing, or even doing homework to do something that was in the same room she was in while she watched Friends on television.

She was exhausted; I understood this. But so was I, with a full load of AP courses, a job, sisters to care for, sports, and several student organizations, four of which I was an officer in. Looking back, it still exhausts me to think about it! Her mother, of course, did the same with her when she was growing up, as many adults do. We have that privilege, that unquestioned (by most) ability to tell our children what to do, make decisions for them, and expect instant, also unquestioning, obedience. Most parents might even say it’s their “right.”

“The idea of adult privilege never occurred to me – even as I consider myself an activist for women, human rights, and marriage equality! It’s one of those concepts that gets completely overlooked because it’s so deeply rooted in our culture.”
Even as a life learning mom, I still considered it my right to interrupt my child’s play – her work – to have her help me around the house, or to go with us immediately on a whim to the store or wherever. The idea of adult privilege never occurred to me – even as I consider myself an activist for women, human rights, and marriage equality! It’s one of those concepts that gets completely overlooked because it’s so deeply rooted in our culture, and you often need a light bulb moment to finally see it.

I think my moment was when I ran across an Adult Privilege Checklist from the UK blog Shut Up, Sit Down, a wonderful source of controversial, new ideas and “radical” viewpoints. Anything that opens up your mind to new ideas like this – whether you agree with it or not – is a gift, but I found myself squawking over the blog post at first. “Make doctor appointments!” I scoffed. “Kids can’t do that anyway! And I have to make decisions for her safety!”

But the more I sat with it, as with any other startling yet truthful information, the more it dawned on me that it was right, and as much as I’d tried so hard to recognize my white privilege (and straight privilege, Western privilege, and so on) I had never even entertained the thought that I had adult privilege, too.

To be fair, I think the idea danced around in my head; otherwise, how would I have ended up unschooling my child? I knew she should make her own decisions about her education and life in general and gave her as many opportunities as possible. But for me, the idea was primarily school-related and the overall picture of how deeply this privilege permeates our culture didn’t really hit me until I read that list; and then, of course, I started to see it everywhere.

   

Restaurants and vacation spots banning children. People sporting bumper stickers that read, “My dog is smarter than your honor student.” Easy tasks being declared “child’s play,” or something so easy “a child could do it.” Parents making decisions for their children, anything and everything from what they wear and eat to when they sleep, eat, get dressed – everything. Even if I uschooled my daughter, I still had an ungodly amount of power in her life. I might take her to the park when she wished to go, of course, but I decided when we went home.

This adult privilege seems to have fostered some kind of child hate in our society. People complain about children in restaurants (when I am much more annoyed by loud obnoxious adults on cell phones), declaring that there are places for kids like McDonald’s. Aside from shuddering over being forced to eat there every day, I must retort, “Would you be happy to only be able to eat at McDonald’s, or any other one establishment, until you are a certain age?” My daughter happens to love fondue, for example, and although we can only afford it once or twice a year, we always take her with us when we go – never mind the couples who want a childless environment.

“To be fair, I think the idea danced around in my head; otherwise, how would I have ended up unschooling my child? I knew she should make her own decisions about her education and life in general and gave her as many opportunities as possible. But for me, the idea was primarily school-related.”

This is not “convenience,” or even a reasonable request for people to make. It is prejudice against children, and it’s definitely a huge factor in our education system and pretty much everywhere else in our society. The first thing people say when you tell them that you unschool is, “But how do you know they’re learning?” at best, or “Won’t they just sit in front of the TV all day? They’re not going to learn anything!” Some people even get angry – although I have a suspicion that such anger could be jealousy in response to not having that kind of freedom. I know I would have thrived on it myself.

Adults seem to have a very difficult time trusting children to learn on their own, which is sort of bizarre since they had no problem doing it before schools were made compulsory not that many years ago. Sure, kids were taught to read and such at home, but parents had kids working alongside them every day, trusting them to learn how the bread was made or how to take care of the animals without daily bells or threats of detention.

I look at our primate cousins today, and how they gently care for their young while letting them explore and have so much freedom for the most part, and wonder how we could over-think and, well, kind of ruin something so simple. As confident as I am in unschooling my daughter, I have moments of doubt. They are rarer and rarer, but my mind was programmed to think that a formal education is necessary for success for nearly half my life and it can take some time to undo that much drilling. So I suppose I can understand where people are coming from when they react so incredulously to homeschooling and life learning, when I still have to stop myself from murmuring, “Um, shouldn’t we do some math or something?” every now and then. At seven, my daughter already knows more about physics than I do, so I think I’ll get it eventually.

As far as what to do about this adult privilege and prejudice against youth, I honestly don’t know what comes next. I know so many adults who aren’t even aware of their own privileges (myself obviously included), or who openly harbor prejudices, and I am often at a loss about what to do in response. I only know that keeping the conversation going and encouraging empathy helps – and that you can’t make a person learn something they don’t want to learn.

That, of course, among many other reasons, is why we unschool.

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