When I was twelve my family moved from Israel to Mexico for two years. This decision happened immediately following the first year in my young life, and one of the only times in my life overall, that I had a sense of belonging and acceptance in a group of peers. The decision was made by my parents without consulting with any of us: my seventeen-year-old sister, myself, or my younger sister who was then five. More than that: it was made against my vociferous opposition, which was so strong that I was semi-seriously contemplating jumping off the ship and swimming back to Israel.
Not only did my parents have the legal right to take me against my will. That right is enshrined in millennia of social norm. Would I have wanted my parents not to go to Mexico because I didn’t want to go? Not exactly. I would have wanted them to be open to considering not going as a possible outcome once all the needs were on the table. More than anything, I would have wanted them to hear and appreciate the horrible loss I was about to incur, to hear my plight and hold my needs alongside theirs. I would have wanted them to let me know, in full, their needs, their struggles, and their perspective that would lead them to want to go. I would have wanted to be invited into joint holding of all the needs and making the decision together. The experience of having no choice and no say in our lives, endemic and pervasive in almost all children’s lives, many women’s lives, still, around the world, and other groups with little access to resources is acutely painful and traumatic. I wish it on no one, not even people who have done acts of horror against others, and certainly not so many of us on a daily basis.
Giving Children Voice
In reading the above, a friend who is in the process of going back with her family to live in another country was deeply affected and decided to engage in dialogue with her eight-year-old about the decision. Let’s call them Janey and Sam. When she first brought up the topic of going back there, they started to tell her all the things they liked and didn’t like about their experience there. Then she had the following dialogue with Sam:
Janey: After thinking about all of that, would you be willing to go back?
Sam: Do I have a choice?
Janey: If you really didn’t want to go, and since I really do want to go, it might be hard to figure out what to do.
Sam: (after some more conversation): Sure, I'll go.
Janey: (some time later): What if I told you that you and your brother could make the decision about whether we go or not--whatever you say, we'll do. What would you say then?
Sam: I would say yes to going.
Sam: Because you're giving me a choice and I don't like to be told what to do.
Children, like the rest of us human beings, want to be able to participate in decisions that affect them. Yes, we tell ourselves that they can’t, they don’t know enough, they can’t be trusted. The very same kinds of arguments that were used in the past to justify denying choice to women, or to blacks, or other groups. Although we are far from full participation of any such group, as I painfully know as a woman, the established norm is one of equal rights under the law. When it comes to children, however, there isn’t even a lip service commitment to equality. Children are still fully “owned” by their parents, and it’s acceptable and customary to restrict their movement, punish them at will, including physically, and make decisions that affect them dramatically without consulting with them first. The only group of humans still held in this way.
This is an extremely tall order. How can any parent in our society, even if they wholeheartedly embrace the full participation of their children, find enough inner capacity to navigate it all and in addition learn how to do it in partnership with children? If we are to create a world in which children experience choice, we would need to restructure life in major ways so that the responsibility doesn’t fall only on the one or two parents to respond to the needs of their children. I think about this a lot, and anticipate coming back to write about this topic more.
Choice and Options
Except in contexts where parents can physically force younger ones to go somewhere, most of the daily experience of life revolves more around attempting to control children’s behavior. Often I hear parents talk about giving or not giving their children choice in certain matters. Just today, for example, at a training I did, I heard one woman talk about her struggle with her 15-year-old who, in her words, “has to be home by 4pm” and who hasn’t been home by 4pm on most days in the last month. This young man was clearly exercising choice every day: the simple choice of whether or not to do what his mother said he “had” to do. It is completely within his power to make the choice not to come home by 4pm, as he has demonstrated repeatedly.
There is nothing anyone can do to take away or give choice to another. Even when physically forced, we still have inner choice in how we respond to a situation. Even when a parent tells a child to go to their room, the child is still choosing whether or not to do so. The power to “make” the child do anything does not exist except when the parent can exercise physical force of some kind.
Do parents have power in relation to their children’s choices? Absolutely! They have the power to restrict their children’s access to resources, and in this way limit their options. They also have another power that is at the heart of why it appears that we can make children, or other people, do what we want: parents have the power to deliver consequences for their children’s actions, backed up by legal and societal norms for doing so. This is no small matter, and every child knows that.
The question I am left with is not whether or not we give children choice. They have it. The question for me is what we can do to support them in making choices that will nourish their lives and their ability to be thoughtful, active, caring participants in life, now and for the rest of their living days. I doubt that having them make choices based on fear of punishment is going to give them the inner strength and clarity of purpose necessary for making wise choices. I have faith in human beings, and I fiercely believe that showing children care and interest in their needs, and presenting clearly what parents need, is a breeding ground of empathic and courageous human beings who can make choices based on their deepest understanding of their own and others’ needs.