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Have you ever used or heard someone else use the phrase, "This is not a democracy" as a response to a child who is arguing with them about something? For example, if a kid has climbed a tree and doesn't want to come down when their parents come to pick them up, the parent might say, "I know you that you want to stay in the tree, but this is not a democracy. Come down from there now." It might be said jokingly, but they are communicating the message that staying up in the tree is not an option and the child must come down. It's time to go home for goodness sake!
I heard someone use that phrase recently, but they were more specific. They said, "Childhood is not a democracy". I think they were reflecting on the fact that many children have so many decisions made for them. They aren't always given a choice about what they can do with their time or where to do it. Most of their lives are directed by the adults who look after them and even when they do want to do something for themselves, they often have to ask permission first (like to get a drink of water or use the bathroom at school, for example). I think what that person said was right - it certainly doesn't sound like childhood is a democracy. If it were a democracy, children would be included in making decisions and there would be more social equality regardless of age.
So why do we exclude children from decision making? Is it because they are truly not capable of making decisions for themselves or the group? Perhaps it's not appropriate for their cognitive and social level of development? Or maybe it's just for the sake of time! Decisions are made so much quicker when there are fewer people involved. And sometimes it's just time to get out of the freaking tree! It nearly time for dinner and we need to pick up your sister!
So maybe childhood is not a democracy... but could it be?
I remember a time when I was out with a group of kids in the woods. They all wanted to play on the swing so they developed a system for sharing it. They decided each person would get two pushes on the swing per turn, then quickly figured out an order for who would go first, second, third, etc. The system was working great until one boy named Ethan started to prepare for a third push during his turn. The others noticed and pointed out this wasn't fair. But Ethan was determined that he really needed a third turn rather than just two. Ethan suggested, "If I have three turns then everyone else can have three turns too." I looked over at the other children as they thought his suggestion over. Then we took a vote. I asked, "Is it ok with everyone that Ethan takes a third turn and then everybody can have three turns too?" Everyone agreed and the group resumed their swing play.
That memory seemed like a reasonable example of democracy in action to me. Yes, a very simplified version of democracy, but democracy nonetheless. Also, it's worth mentioning that the children in this group were 4 years old...
Now I know some of you might want to brush my example aside as unrealistic and probably just a matter of luck. It's certainly not that easy to make group decisions with children every time. And I know that many (including me) would say it can be an absolutely terrifying experience to give young children a say in making decisions! Thinking about it can conjure up images of pure chaos - paint splattering, things breaking, and lots and lots of tears...
But I think part of the "luck" was that there was something a little different about these 4 years olds. They were 4 year olds who were also very used to being included in group decision making processes. They were familiar with methods of problem solving, of sharing with others, and of making compromises. This swing event was not the first time they'd had to put their heads together and mutually figure out a way of behaving that felt good for everybody. That is why the discussion about how many turns to take on the swing was fairly painless and easy. They had practiced this stuff before.
All of this makes me think, if children are to grow up to live in a democracy, wouldn't it be ideal for us to model such a system with them when they're kids? It makes sense that they'd need as much practice as possible in order to become effective adult citizens with skills for active and healthy civic participation. So, if childhood is not a democracy, then perhaps it should be...