Childhood Autonomy: A Comeback Story

By Bria Bloom and Justine McConville

We all know what autonomy feels like. That sense that you’re in control of your body, your mind, and your life. No one telling you what to do, who to be, or how to be it. In an article by Holly Allen, autonomy is described as implying "a state of self-determination, where an individual feels that they have the ability to affect their situation.” Unfortunately, opportunities for autonomy are often lacking from so many parts of our daily lives, and even more so from the lives of children.

The autonomy of children is something often respected on an adult’s own terms. We often allow children’s autonomy to thrive at the playground, in the backyard, or at a birthday party; however, overall, our culture denies children autonomy in disproportionately more spaces than it allows. School is one long-term example of a space in which children’s autonomy has been greatly compromised for what is broadcasted as the purpose of making sure they learn what they need to learn.

But forcing any person to learn something by depriving them of their autonomy to choose that for themselves has major consequences, affecting children’s happiness, passion, motivation, and curiosity. Aren’t those things on the short list of what really helps adults thrive, too? Forcing children to learn goes against the very nature of how human beings have evolved to learn. Children know how to learn in the way that is best for them. They know what matters to them, and developmentally, they have everything they need to adapt to and access the world around them, and to learn the tools of their culture. What would our schooling institutions look like if they honored this natural inclination for learning rather than repressing and acting against it?

Self-Directed Education, or SDE, is “education that derives from the self-chosen activities and life experiences of the person being educated” (Alliance for Self-Directed Education). This can be practiced in many ways, including Free Schools, Sudbury Schools, Agile Learning Centers, homeschooling resource centers, and Unschooling. The Village Free School, located in Portland, OR and made up of kids ages 5-18 and professional SDE facilitators, is a community that prioritizes autonomy in education.

The movement of Self-Directed Education challenges us to think about what is natural to our species with regards to learning, and what is cultural and thus, transient. This concept isn’t so much an educational innovation as it is a return to natural ways of learning, before schooling became an institution of religion or state (for more, read Long Lost Autonomy: A Brief History of Modern Schooling).

Self-Directed Education (SDE) Communities such as the Village Free School and others around the world do not “promote” autonomy because to promote autonomy is antithetical to the basis of self-direction and the idea that autonomy is an innate default. People want to be autonomous, they are autonomous - it’s the schools and implementation of societal norms that strive to take autonomy away. Instead, SDE Communities create a culture in which people’s natural autonomy can continue to survive and thrive. In other words, these communities create a culture that, contrary to conventional school settings, doesn’t take autonomy away.

The Village Free School, and many other SDE communities, honor and respect the autonomy of children in several ways.

They aim to give every person an equal voice whether they are five, or 85. They allow space for every person to contribute to decisions that affect the school. Some schools, like VFS, do this through a democratic model, which can include student council, school meetings, and voting. Others do it through consensus-based decision making, with a fluidly adapting culture created by the community.

They allow everyone the freedom to learn what, when, and how they so choose. Rachael Allen, a director at VFS, describes this practice as protecting people’s ability to make choices. “Kids can actually choose what they’re doing and how they’re spending their time, and through that process they are able to find real meaning and connection.”

When asked what they love about the Village Free School, students overwhelmingly mention the freedom. Wyatt, a recent alumni of VFS thinks back on the experience of being a self-directed student: ”I love that VFS gave me the time and space to move at my own pace academically; I could go off and learn about whatever I wanted on my own, or with support if I needed it.” Similarly, young students enjoy learning that school can be a place that caters to your interests and needs, rather than demanding compliance. Nev, parent of 5-year old Frances, says, “I feel like Frances’ first experiences with formal learning revolve around excitement to pursue something rather than a directed ‘and now you have to learn math’ that comes with all this baggage. Instead she’s really excited about pursuing the interests that mean something to her. Preserving that autonomy is, to me, the most important learning skill. To come out of schooling understanding that you can learn what you need when you need it is really important to me.” This sentiment reveals the shift from conventional schooling, where adults prescribe what kids need to be doing, to adults in SDE settings, who provide space for kids to make those decisions for themselves.

Adults are a source of support as needed, as opposed to fulfilling a role of control and judgement. Instead of making judgmental statements, they try asking questions and work to validate and respect kids’ points of view. In a conversation around how autonomy functions at the Village Free School, Director Kathy Crisp mentions that “judgment limits freedom and puts unneeded barriers between a person and their choices.”

Of course, the adults in this space are human, too. They have a tendency to step in when they feel they can help because the relationships between students and staff are authentic. Adults at VFS value empowering kids to ask for space and make it clear when they feel their autonomy is being encroached upon. They are always examining the fine line between being supportive and being controlling, and balancing adult intervention with respect for autonomy will continue to be a dynamic, collaborative effort.

“I think one of the prominent practices that promotes autonomy at VFS is trust. Trust is a given because we believe it’s what kids deserve. We trust ourselves and we trust them and through that trusting relationship, the realization can take place. It isn’t easy to do that because of doubts on all sides and there is a path we all have to take to get that place where we can realize our autonomy.” -Noppawan, VFS Advisor

All of these practices preserve intrinsic motivation, fostering the tools and drive needed to engage with lifelong learning.

“His interests, which are comic books, are used as an access point for any other projects that he does and any other thing that he needs as opposed to trying to be forced to care about something he’s going to fight against. With my younger son, the autonomy and the ability to choose gives him self-confidence helps him to understand and know himself in a way that is more authentic.” -Amy, VFS Parent

“I feel like it prepares them for the world. When you grow up, it’s on you to make all of your own choices about responsibility, what you do during the day, what you don’t do during the day. We’ve been doing it for so long, I can barely remember what the alternative looks like. They’ve been able to gain so many life skills while also pursuing the core academics.  So many people spend their 20s untangling their schooling experiences and I feel like my kids won't have to do that because they did the self-discovery early on.” -Katie, VFS Parent

There is no perfect way to balance making space for children’s autonomy while existing in a culture that intends to control children around the clock, but once you make the choice to honor and prioritize their autonomy, they will find ways to thrive and learn to take care of themselves and others.

“Our great mission is to raise up people who participate in society with care for each other and also just care about the world. We use democracy and we protect freedom as ways to support that because when people’s freedom and autonomy is protected, respected, and nurtured, they are able then to care for other people.” - Kathy, VFS Director

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