|Photo by my son, as published on his photography blog.|
You know those 'theoretical children' parents and teachers sometimes ask about in terms of 'what if a child is afraid to ...'? Those kids don't exist. Either they are in fact real children, in which case they're not theoretical, and need to be discussed in terms of their actual individual situations, their relationships and history and needs... or they're irrelevant, because they don't exist. As a teacher, parent, director of a program, etc. you can't worry for (or even worse, design a program for) children who don't exist, because their individual nature and needs are totally unknown quantities, and you can't prepare for something undefined.
I thought this was a wonderful direction of thought.
We in the education world design programs with theoretical children in mind. We consider the children we know and have known who might benefit from our plans, and we expect to modify them as we get to know the real children who participate. As parents we also consider theoretical children. We read articles, gather parenting advice, follow programs and regimens we hope will help us parent well. We adjust when we see things going awry, and we seek new advice.
But it's easy to lose sight of the needs of our real children. You know how if you've grown up being warned that dogs bite, you may not recognize a gentle dog when you see one? Well maybe when I believed that all children need a hug when they get home, I didn't recognize that my son really needs some space first. For example.
And about my son. Let's say there's this theoretical child. He's made friends with some people in the grade above him, and really wants to participate with those kids in the activity they're doing. But we assume, as educators or parents with all the theoretical children in mind, that the group as a whole will likely be served best if we put him in the group with kids his own age. This is because, first of all, he needs to learn the things they're learning before progressing onto the subject matter the older kids are learning, and secondly, he'll make friends there anyway. Right? Except he's not a theoretical child. He's my son. We've tried that experiment, based on the values ascribed to the theoretical child, and it bombed.
Yesterday we tried again. My son is now attending a new program, with all new kids. And guess what? He's made friends with some kids who are older than he is! And guess what? Once again he wanted to join them in their science and social studies program, instead of the one for the kids his own age. But here's the big news: they let him do it!
Cut to yesterday afternoon: I was waiting to pick up my daughter when I saw my beaming son, confidence shooting out his head like steam from a steam engine, come striding down an East Vancouver street alone for the first time ever in his life. He was smiling with that kind of vague powerful smile that says 'I am happy to be me in the world, today'. He discovered me waiting there in the car, hopped in energetically, and proceeded to tell me about his day. He said he spent all morning talking about science with a bunch of people who also wanted to talk about science. He spent all of a delightfully long lunch time chatting and playing drawing games with his new friends. He spent all afternoon doing a native studies program that he says was "really interesting". He doesn't even know what grades those kids are in. He's just with them, being himself. And that was what he needed to find his confidence again.
This week my real child was given a voice. He had his own real needs acknowledged and met. His needs trumped the needs of theoretical children, and everybody won. After all, there are no theoretical children.