“The Degree To Which You Resist Is The Degree To Which You Are Free”

Everybody’s had to fight to be free. ~Tom Petty

The American labor organizer, folk singer, storyteller and poet Utah Phillips once said, “The state can’t give you free speech, and the state can’t take it away. You’re born with it, like your eyes, like your ears. Freedom is something you assume, then you wait for someone to try to take it away. The degree to which you resist is the degree to which you are free.”

I’ve often thought that freedom might be the central concern in what we do as early childhood educators. It could also be the central concern in what we do as parents or, indeed, in any of our relationships with other living things. Of course, evolution demands that we care for our babies for a decade or more, otherwise they are unlikely to survive, which in turn means our species would be unlikely to survive. In this way, we are very unlike other species, most of which can measure their requirement to care for their young in terms of months, weeks, or even days. 

Because our young need us for so long, it’s easy to fall into the error of treating these relatively helpless humans as ours to control. We tell ourselves, that it’s for their own good, and perhaps it is, but for me it remains a concern because, ultimately, my hope for every child is that they not only assume their own freedom, but likewise know to resist those who would exert power over them. This is a real problem for those of us who value freedom considering that for many children, perhaps even most, they will have been under the control of adults for the first two decades of their lives.

In some cases, like with authoritarian style adults, this control is explicit, but even those of us who opt for more authoritative or permissive approaches, still, at the end of the day, find that we must, at least from time to time, “for their own good,” excerpt control over the children in our lives. We do it in the name of safety, such as when we forbid them from playing in traffic. We do it in the name of justice, civil society, morality, and courtesy, such as when we don’t allow them to hit other children. We expert this power over them, we tell ourselves, in service to our responsibility as important adults in their lives.

But the slope is a slippery one. Too many of us, when we step back and really focus on the central concern of freedom, find that at least some of what we do isn’t for their good, but rather our own. For me, most of what passes for “classroom management,” for instance, falls into this category: the sitting and silence and walking in straight lines. As a preschool teacher, I felt it was incumbent upon me to know the difference between my actual responsibility to care for children, to keep them safe, to keep them clothed, fed, and sheltered, and the control I exerted for my own ends.

It’s not easy knowing where this line is and it is likely different for every relationship we have with a young human. Finding the line is, for me, an ongoing dialog between myself and the children, both individually and collectively. One way I have of locating that line is when a child, or children, resist. Too often, our instinct is to double down when they fight to be free, to view it as a challenge to our authority. But if we are taking our responsibility seriously, if we are truly seeking to raise free humans, and I hope we are, it is incumbent upon us to listen to their resistance as important communication, and reconsider what we are doing and why we are doing it.

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