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Learning at its Best

Kid Politics

Did anyone else listen to last weekend’s broadcast of This American Life on NPR?  The episode was called “Kid Politics” and aired on 1/14.  If you missed it you can listen here: This American Life

In a nutshell the hour-long episode told the stories of four separate settings in which kids were given what are usually considered adult-like responsibilities for decision-making.  The point seemed to be to investigate if kids are capable of handling this kind of thing.  What are the benefits?  Costs?  The conclusion seemed to imply that when we burden kids prematurely with the weight of the adult world, it may look cute, but we can do real harm.  Okay, I suppose it was a subtler and more complex message than that.  Please listen and let me know what you think the show’s producers and writers wanted the “take away message” to be.

The show opens with excerpts from a film that documented 3rd graders in a school in China that held an election for a position that sounded akin to student body president.  Certain kids emerged as likely candidates and proceeded (goaded on by parents) to engage in all kinds of political corruption: bribery, promising favors to voters, and organized negative campaigning.

In the end several 8 yr old candidates as well as many voters broke down sobbing from a combination of pressure, humiliation and recognizing their own capacity for violence against others.  What was not highlighted in the show was the fact that these children had had no previous experience in democratic processes.  They were thrown into a situation for which they had no context.  While the intended conclusion was that kids need to be shielded from such possible traumas, I drew the opposite conclusion, really.  ADULTS blew it here – both school staff and parents, by setting their children up to reenact the worst and most destructive aspects of adult politics apparently without the guidance or modeling required to envision and realize a healthy democracy.
There was then a segment on a simulation where kids take on the roles of real historical characters and have to work out how to handle the possibility of the 1983 invasion of Grenada.  And a story about a teenager who hit sthe road to go campaigning with her mom, rather than attend school.
Finally there was a segment on the Brooklyn Free School, which began with the intro question, “What if the patients were allowed to run the asylum?” (inflammatory?)  This segment began with an all school meeting discussing whether or not “This American Life” should be allowed access to the school (with a snide comment by the host about securing the support of a six-year-old voter).  It proceeded to document the process by which students went about deciding the fate of a school rule regarding students’ access to electronic devices, computers and video games.  This, I thought was an interesting process, and despite the show’s presumptions about how kids would vote and behave, the students handled this whole situation with great maturity and sophistication.

At the end though I am left wondering, are there appropriate developmental limits to children’s authority and decision-making responsibilities?  Where does child-development  theory come in to free or democratic school practices?  I remember watching a video of Jerry Mintz leading a democratic meeting with 3 and 4 year olds and wondering, how are these children perceiving this process?  What is the nature of their consciousness here, and does this process provide them with what they need from adults?  Does the adult claim any particular authority from the wisdom (hopefully) earned through their extra decades of living?  Does the professional educator or parent maybe actually know what’s best sometimes?  Should families be governed by the same one person:one vote process as BFS?  With 6 yr olds? 3 yr olds? 2?

I’d love for folks to listen to the show, critique it if you’d like, but then let’s talk about the tension between the transformative potential of freedom and authority for kids on one hand and their need for nurturing, caring, protection and loving adult guidance on the other.



About Paul Freedman

I am the founding Director of The Salmonberry School in Eastsound, WA. I have taught elementary school in public and private settings for the past 19 years. I serve as a contributing editor for Encounter: Education for Meaning and Social Justice (Formerly the Holistic Education Review.) I also serve on the faculty of the Self Design Graduate Institute. I hold an MA in EDU from Goddard College.


14 thoughts on “Kid Politics

  1. Short answer, I don’t think we need to have one or the other. I don’t think all democratic schools need to be centered around voting rights, but also don’t believe the child/adult relationship is removed just because there is a voting process either.

    This program is a couple year old, but I agree with some of your take away, “aren’t they cute, but…” etc mindset. It speaks more to the adults view of kids than to the children. I had said, I will know we have transformed education when stories of children doing wonderful things are no longer a news item. I don’t think gifted children are unique, but I do think we limit the potential of most children to showcase their gifts.

    The soundbite from the Chinese students is actually from a feature documentary, Please Vote for me, also on Netflix instant.

    I think the film is more about the corruption of politics, which I believe has no age limit. It also shows the heart of children and how powerful their voices can be, both for good or bad. I highly recommend watching it in full.

    I think it all comes to balance like everything else. I critique democratic education that removes the natural adult/children relationships, or who focus so much on the process of democratic voting and not on the underlying ideals of democracy.

    I am reading Yaacov Hecht’s Democratic Education: A Beginning of a Story, and I think it is the best and fullest description and discussion of what I think is a more holistic understanding of democratic education.

    I have been working on getting the Cooperative Catalyst discounted copies, and I really hope we could all read it together. It has really inspired me, and is deepening my understanding of my own role as a creator of a future school and someone that works with young people and their communities.

    I think this is a great question and one that I am glad you have brought up.


    Posted by dloitz | January 20, 2012, 12:17 pm
    • Hey David,

      Thanks for invoking the concept of “balance” and advocating for “natural relationships” and embedding “holistic” principles into “democratic education.” You’re playing my song!

      I have seen and heard Yaacov speak but have not yet read this text. It’s now on my list!

      I’d also most highly recommend Parker Palmer’s brand new book: Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage To Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit. Democracy is not about voting and the right to vote it is about connection, trust, and having the courage to inject care and altruism into governance.

      Palmer writes, “(democracy) is the ancient and honorable human endeavor of creating a community in which the weak as well as the strong can flourish, love and power can collaborate and justice and mercy can have their day…(it is) rooted in the commonwealth of compassion and creativity.” Palmer correctly positions the need for community at the center of the democratic “experiment.” We must recognize and embrace difference and diversity and find a way to elevate humanity for all – regardless of age.


      Posted by Paul Freedman | January 20, 2012, 1:56 pm
      • As the mom of two thriving unschoolers, I was struck by the manner in which children were placed into adult roles.

        There seemed to be nothing organic about it, not any intrinsic value to the children themselves, except in the case of the Brooklyn Free School (but, even there, the philosophy was conceived and is enacted by adults).

        I can say for certainty, because I live it every day, that children can indeed make decisions for themselves that many adults would not believe them capable (and that I wouldn’t have thought them capable, in the days when we lived a more authoritarian life, with their father and I most definitely in “joint command”).

        Just as a newborn must master many steps before walking, though, children need lots of practice in decision-making to get good at making decisions that matter (the case could be made that the re-enactment of the Grenadian invasion and an adult-devised and manipulated election don’t matter).

        Judging the abilities of children based on events like these seems artificial and unfair, to me.

        In our home, a partnership model exists. The adults in the family are known to have decades more life behind them, and to often have information and insight that can’t be gotten any other way than by living.

        The children in the family are known to have decades more ahead of them (we hope), and a certain flexibilty and native ability with new technology than can be had when one is much older.

        Each of us shares with the others what we have to offer – but this family is not a democracy. Two of us have been entrusted with the title of “parent” – and with that honor comes certain responsibility.

        Neither is it a dictatorship. Each of the children has a great deal of latitude to decide for themselves, based upon their competence and comfort level. Adults are usually available to help when someone wants to master something new – most recently when learning to handle, feed, and interact with the guinea pigs we adopted over the weekend. As they are learning the ways of their new pets, they are requesting less help and more support. As they gain competence, Jim and I are stepping back, allowing them to do more of the handling and care while assuring that children and rodents remain safe and as comfortable as possible.

        In turn, each of them has specific areas of interest where their mastery outpaces ours. Our 10 year old son, for example, is passionate about technology, and often has the answers to our confusions. Our daughter, almost 8, is excellent at navigation (something I am personally sadly inept at).

        We learn from each other, and the learning is inextricably bound up in our living. We don’t relay on agendas; life presents innumerable chances to learn and grow, and children are particularly adapted to take advantage of those chances.

        By and large, we rely on presence and attention, and a LOT of conversation as we go along. The adults are prepared to step in when needed, and to bow out when the need has passed.

        Recent months here have involved conversations on laws and current events, dog bathing, firewood chopping, lawn mowing, mastering reading and division; practicing conflict resolution; talking about how our actions can affect others; and much, much more.

        I never could have orchestrated half of the above, and that’s just a fraction of what we’ve lived, here…

        I strongly believe, though, that there is something callous in thrusting children into adult roles they are unprepared for, simply to advance an adult agenda.

        Posted by shanjeniah | May 29, 2012, 8:34 pm
    • David, I would love to have a group discussion of A Beginning of A Story.

      Posted by Kirsten | January 23, 2012, 8:32 am
  2. Well said.

    I will put you down for a copy of the book and when I get a tally, I will let you know. As you know my introduction to education was with Sudbury Vally Schools and I have spent the last 5 years refine and reflection on my own philosophy of education that it based deals with transforming the way we enact with children in a community of learning. I think the voting part of democratic or free schools brings up very interesting questions and challenges, but I don’t they should not be taken as doctrine. Tolstoy’s free school, which many cite as one of the first free schools, did not have voting, but they also did not see the need to force children to learn, but they realized that children naturally learn, that all humans do. Force and control are not the same as structure or guidance… but many adults don’t understand that. I think every community of learning is going to be different and should be allowed too…. I also think communities should allow for their learners to experiment with different models and forms of learning…this however does not often happen….even in free schools… to me that is what is important. The ability to be flexible and allow movement, ebb and flow… be it with curriculum, or pedagogy or environment…..

    But I think we often play the same song, and it is a song I like to hear, I would be interested to hear from some other people to see what they believe.


    Posted by dloitz | January 20, 2012, 2:49 pm
  3. These questions are one of the reasons I began studying the ways in which adult-child relationships are structured in indigenous societies. For example, adults in most hunter-gatherer societies are intensely egalitarian, and resist all attempts at domination from a “leader,” but they generally don’t express their collective will through voting but through more tacit, unspoken processes. Adults are assumed to have authority over children, but exercise it rarely, for the most part allowing children substantial freedom in daily activities. At the same time, children often have “adult” responsibilities at a young age, participating fully in child care and contributing to food production and family economic well-being – although there is usually no set timetable for the adoption of these responsibilities, and kids take things on as they become ready. Many, many variations on this. It’s an interesting area to explore as you consider new ways of structuring communities of learning.

    Posted by Carol Black | January 20, 2012, 4:21 pm
    • Carol, This is very helpful and echos many of the perceptions of my friend Peter Gray, who frequently writes about contemporary education from the standpoint of hunter gatherer societies. Do you know his blog Freedom To Learn?

      We are in a think tank together discussing how the issue of play, and cooperative play, might be engaged as a strategic issue for the transformation of the American system. We’ve got the neurobiological research–and need to make the anthropological literature more accessible to folks who are interested.

      Posted by Kirsten | January 23, 2012, 8:37 am
  4. Carol,

    I am so glad when you join the conversation. Your comment reminded me of Dewey trip to Utopia, that was published in the New York Times in 1930’s. It is written as a travel log of Utopia and their vision of education. While much of it could be considered utopian, I find it to be more of a throw back to earlier communities and ways of life. I seem to share this article by John Dewey a lot, but I think at its core it speaks to much of what we are talking about here. A relationship between children and adults, between being a person and being part of community, about living together without losing one’s ability to seek their own forms of happiness and create with passion.

    Dewey Outlines Utopia

    Posted by dloitz | January 20, 2012, 5:32 pm
  5. Paul,

    I think the school/education scenarios described in the Acts were merely the context for stories about children tending to be replications of their parents/role models by way of words and deeds (let’s face it, children are “in school” far less than they are outside it).

    No child develops at the same rate as another (so much for the Bell Curve and IQ scores), no child is wholly ‘normal’ (and if normalcy is average, who wants it anyway? and so, aside from ‘protecting’ youths from truly dangerous activites and situations in ‘schools’ I think an extremely wide degree of lattitude is possible if (but only IF) consideration is given to the individual youth(s) in question.


    Posted by Brent Snavely | January 21, 2012, 2:58 pm
  6. Democratic education is about acknowledging the individual’s voice, role, and agency in her own education – and about helping her to hear others’ voices in her learning community. Democratic education is not about throwing kids into adult situations and coercing them to behave undemocratically just to rig the game and prove a point. I mean, come on – kids typically jury out of democratic learning environments when they feel ready to take on more adult responsibilities in their lives. Extending kids’ choice and relevant learning in school is not the same thing as tossing them into the ring of political infighting in the PRC. The Grenada segment should have looked at the World Peace Game, and the reporters should have paid some attention to their scant sample sizes before drawing bombastic conclusions.

    A better story would have compared the findings of research on the life outcomes of 20- or 30-something graduates of several different types of education in the United States.

    Bad journalism.

    Posted by Chad Sansing | January 21, 2012, 5:39 pm
    • Hey Chad & Brent,

      I agree with you both, particularly in regards to the opening segment on the 3rd grade election. Just an excuse to document a set-up for these poor kids, allowing us to feel smug and righteous in our paternalistic, authoritarian, oppressive educational system. “We know what’s best for them…they’re so young and tender, we mustn’t expose them to such harsh realities” etc.

      For me, the BFS segment was more complex. I think, for the most part the excerpts demonstrated some sound problem-solving and group-decision making processes. It also hinted at the possibility that even those who “got their way” and won the vote regarding freer use of computers in the school, were also affected by the process. Although through “winning” they earned the license to use computers indiscriminately, they actually developed a mindfulness about it, as well as a recognition of the responsibility that goes hand-in-hand with decision making.

      One thing that concerns me about any rule-by-vote kind of democracy, whether kid, adult or multi-genreational, is that while, yes, wisdom may be found through collective reasoning and the voice of the majority, you also run the risk of creating a disenfranchised “minority.” When a segment of the community “loses” the vote repeatedly, you can inadvertently create a minority class, and all kinds of power and class issues can emerge. I have witnessed some of this in democratic schools I have visited. So, I found it heartening that even the “winners” here, were somehow moved by the process. It seemed that perhaps all were elevated by going through the process.


      Posted by holisticdancingmonkeygmonkey | January 21, 2012, 8:19 pm
  7. Paul, I heard the TAL segment about a year ago, I think, and have had a chance to talk with a teacher from the Brooklyn Free School about it since then. My take on the BFS segment (that’s the one I recall best) was that there was more ambiguity in the underlying narrative than you heard–interesting because this is such an example that we hear with the ears we came in with. I thought the story did actually present a question about whether the common adult perception that children MUST be managed and adjudicated by adults to be functional was truly raised, and the conclusion was much less certain than you perceived. I also thought the reporter was explicitly commenting on her own difficulties with the paradigm as she entered the story.

    The BFS folks apparently thought the segment was “pretty good”; it caught some of the complexities of what they are trying to do and most importantly brought the free school model to a much much larger audience. The school now struggles with accommodating all the visitors who want to see the school for themselves. Sometimes 30 people want to come in one day.

    That says something.

    Should I listen again?

    Miss you man,


    Posted by Kirsten | January 23, 2012, 8:45 am
    • Hi Kirsten,

      No, I don’t think we perceived this significantly differently. I agree with everything you say here. maybe I just didn’t articulate myself very well. It was, I thought an honest segment examining the efficacy this radical pedagogy.

      Interestingly, I met with Alan Berger, founding Head of BFS (is he still there?) the summer after the school was founded. In addition to the challenge of looking to relocate to a new site, the challenge he talked about most was the kids’ use of video games. He talked about how the staff were trying to work the process to affect a rule limiting or banning games but were struggling to work within the governance structure. Really interesting dilemma, I thought. And really interesting that this continues to be the hot topic. Is this a universal conundrum for free school folks these days?

      Miss you too!


      Posted by Paul Freedman | January 23, 2012, 11:22 am

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