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Serious Human Becomings

We've all heard the stories: parents who have stopped their children from taking part in 'rough play', schools who have banned children from playing conkers or running in the playground, parks which have banned games, all in the name of reasonable precaution, but I often worry that the boundary between reasonable precaution and over protection is very thin.

Janusz Korczak, the inspirational Polish paediatrician, author and educator, wrote that 'Children are not the people of tomorrow, but are people of today. They have a right to be taken seriously.' Korczak's aim, as revolutionary now as it was in the 1920s when he wrote these words, was to challenge the view commonly held, that children are some sort of mini adults. Instead, Korczak argues, we should see children as a fully formed individuals with needs, wants, rights and responsibilities.

At Alma we take children seriously. We believe that their needs are important. We believe they have opinions that, while not always tested by experience, deserve the opportunity to be considered, questioned and honestly challenged. Most importantly we believe in the importance of treating children with respect. We don't think that they will be knocked down by every gust of wind that blows. Children's self-esteem is vital but our experience as educators is that children are resilient and they aren't damaged by every knock that life has to offer. We believe that they can cope with some disappointment. Experiencing disappointment, frustration and difficulty is an essential element to learning to cope with the difficult business of being a human.

This is an attitude that Dr Carol Dweck refers to as a 'growth mind set'. Coming across problems can be frustrating, but that doesn't equate with failure. Rather, facing problems of all kinds is a way to grow and develop. Dealing with challenges offers us opportunities to improve and to be best placed to respond to challenges in the future. Often in life, things don't go the way we would like. Our children don't always get what they want, or even what we want them to get. When small disappointments happen, it isn't always helpful to fight in order to protect our children. Instead we can see disappointments as opportunities for them to learn how to overcome setbacks and to develop the capacity to see the bigger picture. By approaching problems in this way, we are giving our children the best chance to succeed in life by helping them to develop resilience.

Taking children seriously means that we will allow them to struggle and fail and then encourage them to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and learn from the experience. Maybe they will need to try harder, to try differently or simply to try again. As parents, we want to protect our children from the serious dangers of the world. This is an instinct we have developed over thousands, if not millions of years, but was adapted to a world where we simply knew less. The constant stream of information about the dangers of the world that we are now exposed to means this instict is being constantly triggered. Many parents now find themselves in a position where rather than protecting their children from serious danger, they focus on every conceivable issue in a desire to sheild their children from pain. As parents, we need to learn to self-moderate those instincts, to allow our children to take risks and to expose them to difficulties and disappointments. By doing so we won't make their lives worse - rather we will help them to develop strategies to overcome difficulties, to face disappointments and to deal with the world head on. We learn from our experiences. Preventing our children from experiencing difficulties means we also prevent them from learning. As Dweck puts it, our achievements aren't measured by how easily things come to us, but by how we deal with the things which don't come easily.

Writing about children being treated with respect, Korczak continued "They should be allowed to grow into whoever they were meant to be. The 'unknown person' inside of them is our hope for the future." This weekend is the festival of Shavuot, the time in Judaism in which we celebrate receiving the Torah. In one of my favourite Shavuot midrashim (rabbinical stories) the Israelites are asked to offer God a guarantee before they are allowed to have the Torah. In the story, God rejects the Israelite's righteousness and also rejects their ancestors, but agrees to give them the Torah when they offer their children as a guarantee. The midrash reminds us that our children hold the potential to improve our world, but they can only achieve that potential if we take them seriously, allow them to make mistakes and give them opportunities to learn from those mistakes.

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