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.