The Wild Child

I speak here about a significant and substantive change in philosophy toward children, a need to shift our perspective. There are innumerable “but what abouts” that can be trotted out at any point in this conversation, but fortunately in blog form, I’m going to finish, and then you can comment and ask questions. I caution you, however, against reading this as something it is not. I am not saying “all school rules are bad.” I will not say “there are no instances in which an adult may need to counsel and guide a child.” I have not said there is no need to understand cause-effect or antecedent-consequent relationships when it comes to words and deeds. But let’s holster all that for a moment, because that isn’t what I’m talking about today. I’m talking about a philosophical distinction between being pro-child and being pro-school. So, we begin as we often do here: With me proclaiming.

I celebrate feral children.

The domestication of kids through institutional machinery is tragic, and those who seek to corral the natural child into cages are my enemies. Wildness is a natural and desirable characteristic of healthfully-developing kids and of the child learner, and we educators have, in my view, a significant responsibility to cultivate and promote that wildness.

Disenthralling children from the formalized, paternalistic, and too-often explicitly patriarchal “niceness” and “cleanliness” of traditional institutionalized schooling is mission-critical the radical pedagogue. It’s one thing to help children grow into kind people, but it’s quite another to force the kind onto our kinder.

Genuine freedom is addictive, and contagious, and the patriarchal system of coercion and possession – those chattel-minded objectifiers of children – is terrified of an epidemic of this freedom, but schools that practice genuine love of children are all about rolling around in the filthy mud of the natural child-state. There will be none of the broad-sweeping “kids must be” or “kids are” statements imposed on the young ones here, but it is an appropriate generality to say that by and large, kids are born to be wild. They must explore, test boundaries, challenge themselves and others, and engage in meaningful discovery as part of their natural development. These essential neurocognitive truths are second nature to real teachers, but remain occult to those who have lost their own children to their machine-allegiances, obscured by institutionalism and adult-oriented systems of comfort and insulation that allow them to disengage from wildness.

The murder of the creative, free, genuine child is more than a result of but is a direct goal of the systematized patriarchal school. I don’t choose this word callously: such dehumanization should absolutely be regarded with  horror we instinctively reserve for the most brutal and shocking of crimes. But it happens with tremendous frequency, this eradication of the genuine child, ground to grist with which we’ll cook up “productive members of society,” a baneful and loathesome idea of what it means to be a grown-up. We talk about school, not children. We talk about classes, not children. We talk about delivery of instruction as a commodity not experiencing learning as a living, breathing activity. Defense of the institution over the people within the institution indicates (duh) institutionalized thinking, and if one awakens and pops up like a meerkat and looks around, one will see countless examples of this domesticating, this taming of the natural wild child.

Kids are messy. Complicated. Fascinated and fascinating. Bright and feeling and capable, children are naturally radiant in their untraumatized, unharmed, not-institutionalized states. They self-organize, and play with abandon, and demanding their silence, their stillness, is in so many cases an exercise in psychoemotional brutality. This is not to say there are not situations in which we can compassionately, lovingly instruct situations in which they will gain great social and interpersonal advantage in seeking stillness, but that is a very different matter than demanding obedience and compliance in systems that are not child-appropriate.

There is a marvelous book called Yardsticks by educator and human developmentalist Chip Wood that expertly outlines the typical neurological, psychological, physical child at each age level. Take these observable natural child states, and compare them with the things we ask of kids, the systems we impose upon them:

Four year olds visually focus on faraway things and are naturally clumsy, spilling and colliding, and often hold things with whole closed fists. They run, climb, dance spontaneously, and are unable to sit still for long periods of time. They are developing friend bonds, and are generally friendly, though they often prefer proximity to actual closeness. They are often fearful, and by now are having nightmares as part of their brain development, and so cry. They are extraordinarily talkative, experimenting with language and sound. They deeply need free play and exploration, and enjoy drama and stories, both performing and being performed to.

Eight year olds are tremendously energetic and need physical play. They are awkward, and this is developmentally appropriate. They are able to focus on both near and far objects well. Socialization and humor are part of their developing flexibility and adaptability, and form noticeably larger friend groups than even a year prior. They often gender-separate as they begin to develop an understanding of the gender continuum. Their language experimentation has expanded their vocabulary, and as such, they tend to like to explain things and tell stories, though their memories may not be of expansive capacity, so they have many ideas but often forget things. Their attention span is still significantly limited, as their brains leap from one thing to the next due to exponential neuron development rates, so while they are industrious, they are also impatient.

Twelve year olds need a tremendous amount of sleep as their physical frames grow at such a significant rate, as well as exercise and food intake. They tend to be physically active and experience discomfort as they experience a growth spurt, regardless of gender. Children with uteruses are generally showing signs of puberty, and most have begun menstruating. Accompanying these physical developments, adult-like personality traits begin to emerge even though the child is still a child. They are capable of significant self-awareness, insight, and interpersonal empathy. They are significantly more reasoning and reasonable, as well as more tolerant, than even a year prior. Healthy twelve year olds will shed inhibitions and experiment and risk more overtly, as they develop a sense of being and accompanying confidence. They also care more about their peers’ opinions than those of adults, including their parents, and will often self-initiate tasks and projects. Sarcasm and double entendre are understood by and interesting to these children, and their language experimentation yields slang and peer-specific jargon. They can abstract, and understand antagonistic or opposite perspectives.

Think about these typical profiles of feral children. Think about the things we do to, the things we demand of, kids of these ages. We tell four year olds  to sit still and stop crying, despite the fact that they cannot and must not. We tell eight year olds to be quiet and pay attention and stop speaking in nonsense, despite the fact that they should be doing just that. And we tell twelve year olds that they’re just kids and just have to do what they’re told on one hand, despite the fact that they are rapidly developing significant cognitive capacity, and then tell them to grow up and act like adults on the other hand, despite the fact that they’re absolutely still children with complicated neural frameworks and social challenges.

I’m not interested in defense of these positions or rules that enforce them. Blaming or even crediting the institution for teaching failures is a form of erasure: Doing so inappropriately absolves adults – especially educators – of their personal responsibility for doing wrong to children, such as ghettoizing them, testing them homogeneously, misidentifying or misperceiving them, or causing them psychosocial harm by forcing them to comply with developmentally-unreasonable directives. Apologists for “do what I tell you to do” rule-maker mentalities defend themselves and their institutions for complicity in what is tantamount to violence against children.

Is such “adult as master, child as obedient slave” a form of sadism? An artifact of patriarchal, paternalistic chattel mentality? I cannot help but wonder if it is, if there is a predatory aspect to such vicious and insistent ghettoization of children into inappropriate adult-like roles. Ritual orderliness is an obsession of the institutional mind, and belies a deep insecurity toward and terror of lacking control. One must question the psychoemotional fitness to teach of anyone who prefers a system to a child, and I do not believe it is overwrought or foolish to say that demanding children do things they are not intended to do – intended by biology, psychology, neurology, or sociology – and punishing them for not complying with developmentally-inappropriate demands is, indeed, preferring a system to preferring a child.

I don’t much care how uncomfortable indictments like this make people, because radicalism eschews comfortable language when the reality of a situation are best served with naked truth. Educators and parents alike are often lulled into complicity by convenient or traditional language and frameworks that masks the truth. This syntactic exploitation infuriates the child-centered pedagogue, and radicals who uplift and celebrate and demand the liberation of feral children have an obligation – in my view – to call out destructive and developmentally-inappropriate demands placed upon children.

We can teach lovingly. We can play loudly. We can, indeed, be chaotic and embrace that chaos as natural and appropriate, and still kindly, compassionately, and meaningfully help guide our learners of all ages to find their successes, their quiets, their stillnesses, in their own time and in their own way.

I do not here say that all children must be loud and messy and without structure or guidance at all times, but rather say that all children must be more than allowed to be those things, but must be recognized and celebrated as deeply and intrinsically needing those things with a frequency that our institutions do not understand, accept, or permit, and that is a problem we must change with haste.

Yes, we have to keep our kids safe and healthy and ensure they don’t get hurt, but the right way to do that is not to lock them up in small cages.

I celebrate feral children.

I wish to free children.

I wish them to be wild, and for us to love them for it.