Letting children choose...

A few days ago I wrote about the idea of giving children and teenagers the facts about things and then letting them make their own choices. I expressed the view that this is the last thing that most parents do and that in general our idea of 'giving them the facts' means launching a ruthless and sophisticated PsyOps campaign in order to bring them into the fold and compel them to adopt our own prejudices about the world. I want today to consider the wisdom of allowing them to make choices about their long term future in the first place, whether or not they access to objective information. In other words, even when they have got hold of the facts, should they be given a free hand in choosing what to do? Should we ask our children if they wish to study for and sit examinations? Should we let them decide whether they attend school or are educated at home?

Anybody with a child or teenager will be familiar with the experience of seeing their child do something dangerous or mad and then asking the child afterwards, 'Why on earth did you do that?' The answer is usually a shrug of the shoulders and perhaps a few words of explanation along the lines of 'I don't know' or 'It seemed like a good idea'. I did any number of stupid things as a teenager. One that sticks in the memory is the day I was walking past a multi-story car-park with some friends. I was fifteen. Without any warning, I suddenly bolted from the group and ran to the car-park. I then climbed up the outside, right to the top. I could not even today, over forty years later, explain why I did this; it just seemed a good idea at the time! I am sure that adult readers will have their own cringe-making memories of doing stupid things at a similar age. These might include girls having unprotected sex with complete strangers, swallowing pills containing unknown substances, getting into a car driven by a drunk person and hitch-hiking home at two in the morning. It's what teenagers do.

The reason that children and teenagers do all sorts of silly and hazardous things is because they do not have the ability which adults have of seeing the probable or possible consequences of their actions. They act now and think later. For a twelve or thirteen year-old, the present is real and the future a vague and meaningless abstraction. A month is long time, a year is an eternity and five years in the future is an inconceivably distant point even to contemplate. This is of course very right and proper. We would not really want our children to be constantly fretting about the future; if they can't live for the present now, whenever can they? This does mean though that they are not really the best people to make plans for five or ten years in the future. We do that better because we are used to it. For us, a ten year plan is quite a manageable chunk of time. After all, it is less than half the term of the average mortgage! Asking a twelve year-old to envisage what he will be doing in ten years, on the other hand, is utterly mad. He cannot possibly know what steps he should be taking at the age of twelve to secure his long term future. We see this very clearly when children at school are choosing their options for GCSEs. Here is some advice given to thirteen and fourteen year-olds in Year 9 at a local secondary school;

' You'll be studying these subjects for the next two years, so it's important that you enjoy doing them. What could be worse than being stuck in a classroom doing a subject you wished you'd left behind?
That said, you should also try and think about the future. Do you need this subject for your future plans such as university or a job?'

This is sheer lunacy! They don't have any future plans for jobs or university at thirteen; not unless they are very weird and atypical children. What sort of factors do these kids really take into consideration when they choose their options? Here are some genuine quotations from actual children in Year 9. 'I wanted to do history 'cause my mates are doing it'. 'I'm not doing RS, I hate that Miss Jones that takes it'. 'Art's easier than geography'. 'I hate French!'.
These are children for Heaven's sake, you can't possibly expect them to make a reasoned decision, weighing up the various pros and cons, considering their future job or university course.

Now I know that we home educating parents have children who are smarter/more sensitive/sensible/thoughtful/artistic/socially aware and so on than schooled children, but all the same, their brains are still wired up in the same haphazard and irrational way as other teenagers. You can't even rely upon them to put their dirty clothes in the washing machine; how on earth can we depend upon them to make serious decisions about their adult life? These decisions are likely to have long lasting effects upon their lives. Studying or not studying for GCSEs, choosing which subjects to study, taking an OU course, that sort of thing

So If allowing our kids to decide is a little too risky, then who on earth should we expect to make choices about their future, including the nature and extent of their education? Wait! I think I know the answer to this one. That would be us as the parents and responsible adults, making the decisions on behalf of our children based upon our superior knowledge and infinitely greater ability to plan ahead. Frankly, the idea of abdicating responsibility for my child's education and allowing her to make the choices at a young age would have struck me as foolhardy and reckless in the extreme. The only sufferer from such a course of action would have been my daughter herself and that alone was good enough reason for not doing it.