Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Childhood autonomy; what are the limits?

For a number of online home educating communities, autonomous education seems to be far and away the most popular approach. Indeed, for some it seems almost an article of faith. I want to look today at the basis for this belief that our children are the best judges of what they should study and learn.

Looking at Ross Mountney's book "Learning without School" (Jessica Kingsley 2009), I find a definition with which many autonomous home educators would agree. On page 72 she says, "The children do activities which they have chosen, when they have chosen them." Similarly, in a recently published book in the "Teach Yourself" series, (Home Education, Hodder Headline 2009), author Deborah Durbin says of her own children, "They are given the freedom to make choices as to what subjects they would like to study and are under no pressure to study subjects they show no interest in", (Page 64).

The difficulty that I and many others have is with the whole concept of children being the best judges of what is good for them. From birth, we restrict the autonomy of our children. If a baby or toddler wishes to drink something like bleach from a brightly coloured bottle, we prevent them. This is because we, as adults, know better than them what is wholesome and good for them. If they want to play with a wasp, we stop them. This process continues throughout childhood. I am sure that even the most dedicated autonomous parent would not allow her child to live on sugar and coca cola. This is because, once again, we know better. We make them wash, clean their teeth, eat properly, go to bed at a reasonable hour, not wear the same clothes until they turn into stinking rags; in a hundred different ways each day we meddle with their lives and limit their autonomy. However when it comes to mental heath and development, rather than physical, the rules seem to change dramatically. The question is, why?

Since we assume that a child cannot be trusted to understand the effect of ultra violet rays, and their carcinogenic properties, we slap on sunscreen. Incidentally, I have noticed that autonomous educators are among the greatest worriers about this; their children are often dripping with the stuff even on an overcast April morning! However, if the children fail to realise the importance of being able to do mental arithmetic or compose a coherent letter, the rules change; the choice is now theirs. Avoiding skin cancer and being able to work out the change from a ten pound note are both important, but we allow the child to make the choice in one, but not the other case.

Why should we assume in other words, that children know, better than we do, what sort of knowledge and skills they are likely to need in later life? To take a basic example, it is very useful indeed to be able to work out areas when one is painting a room. It enables us to calculate how much paint we will need and also how much it will cost. How can a child of ten be expected to realise that learning to multiply length by breadth in order to find an area will be a vital skill which he is bound to need as an adult? The answer is, of course, that he cannot be expected to know this. Yet if we follow the advice of authors like Mountney and Durbin, quoted above, we would leave it entirely up to the child whether or not he even did any arithmetic at all!

So, my question is this. Some children, left to their own devices, might sit up until midnight or later, watching television and eating sweets. They would then go to bed without cleaning their teeth. This is an example of autonomy in practice, but not one which most parents would allow. Other children might live normal lives but have a marked aversion to a useful subject such as mathematics. According to many writers on the topic, this should be allowed and no pressure exerted on the child to acquire the rudiments of arthimetic. It should be left to him to investigate when he feels like it. If he never shows any interest, then so be it. Do most autonomously educating parents agree with people like Mountney and Durbin on this or do these authors hold extreme and unrepresentative views?



  2. Familiar with this.

    A friend.

  3. "I am sure that even the most dedicated autonomous parent would not allow her child to live on sugar and coca cola. This is because, once again, we know better." That's a bit of a generalisation isn't it? I think you give them too much credit.

  4. You may indeed have a point, Anonymous!

  5. I think this approach to home education may be partially useful, for example, if the child plays a major role in a family business or on a farm -- where real life scenarios inform what they need to know (and therefore want to know). For instance, if a child is earning money through raising animals for 4-H, certain science and math lessons are going to be very relevant to them. I do think it is the parent's role to guide them -- to help them realize where they might find the information that will best help them solve their problems. And I do think they need more guidance. Interests will arise as they are guided to different ideas and areas of activity.