The way our society thinks about and acts toward children is primarily from a mindset of 'doing to'. Children's lives and what they do are usually prescribed day by day, minute by minute, by adults. Children get to make few decisions about their own lives and even fewer that will affect others.
To be a truly inclusive society that involves children, I believe that we need to move away from this approach of 'doing to' and towards the approach of 'partnering with'. In this sense, children's inclusion is not just something you practice but something that you believe in whole heartedly. It seeps through every interaction you have with children. It is a cultural change; the culture being, the way we interact with children. It is through this cultural shift that I believe truly child friendly communities will evolve.
But partnering with children? Surely children must be given instructions, be taught and guided. Of course adults have wisdom to impart to children; we have more life experience in most areas, we have made mistakes and learnt what we think are the best and most efficient ways to do things. We have learnt what is good for us and what isn't, though most of us have a long way to go to put this into practice. But does this mean adults need to make every or even most decisions for children, or orchestrate their lives to the minute? In fact more and more, there is a growing understanding, that the opposite is true, especially for building children's resilience.
Yes, of course it is our role as supportive adults, to share our wisdom and experience, but partnering with children as they make the myriad of choices each day throws at them, big and small allows them to experiment with decision making. Sometimes they will make a poor decision and sometimes they will may approach a challenge from a different angle but achieve the same outcome as an adult. And sometimes, children will come up with an even better way to approach a choice or task than an adult would have ever thought of. Whatever the outcome, children making choices and making decisions, learn. They learn about risks, they learn about outcomes, they learn how to solve problems. They develop a sense of pride and accomplishment.
My daughter attends an amazing family day care once a week where the educator embraces the philosophy that children should be empowered and supported to make choices through out the day. At lunch time, rather than dishing out each child the same amount of food on their plate, the meal is placed at the centre of the table, and the children serve themselves. This enables them to choose what, and how much they would like to eat. They are able to go back for second or third portions if they want (which they often do as the food is delicious). It is a simple action, but one which trusts that children are capable of choosing how to nourish and sustain their bodies.
But how often to children truly get to make decisions or be part of a decision making process in partnership with adults? And how often is their decision making respected, even if it doesn't run quite how us adults might hope it would? And if we are not supporting children to make decisions, how can we expect to end up with healthy adults, capable of doing this?
I believe that we are society that cares deeply about our children. In many ways they sit at the
centre of what we do; our worlds revolve around them. However, I'm not sure we are a society which always respects children, or acknowledges them as people, albeit small ones; that are entitled to the same rights as everyone else. In many ways, adult relationships with children resemble that of a benevolent dictatorship.
But what if we were to change this culture of 'doing to', of benevolent dictatorship, towards one of partnership and respect? I strongly believe that our children would flourish and our society would be transformed. Children who live in a culture where their decisions are treated with respect, will likely grow into adults that are responsible, are confident in their abilities and that respect the decisions of others.
And this is not just about parents, but grandparents, child care workers, schools, clubs, government, any individual or organisation that ever engages with children.
It's not always easy, and lets face it, life is often far easier when we make the decisions. When we decide what clothes will be worn, what activities will be done or what lessons will be taught, but I suspect we all know deep down that a dictatorship, even a benevolent one, doesn't help anyone thrive. A happy, healthy and sustainable society is one in which we have choices, and children need these choices too.
Children are rarely yet experts at anything, but they are always the experts in their own lives!