Parenting a Free Child

There is no such thing as a “free child.” This myth has been carefully spread over the last forty years by authors and speakers and all kinds of people that I have admired for a lot of reasons – but not this one. The ideal of the “free child” seems to be the ultimately anarchistic young person, able to reason and reckon on their own without influence or guidance from adults, from society and from all other people. While that seems like a radical vision, its nothing less than what Ivan Illich proposed in Deschooling Society, or even John Holt in Escape from Childhood. Apparently frustrated by The Freechild Project’s usage of the word, an author named Rue Kreame wrote a book in 2005 called Parenting a Free Child in which she laid out the pathway that parents could follow for raising so-called “free” children.

There is no simple reality involved here. Part of the issue was captured in the 1600s by a poet named John Donne that wrote,

“No man is an island, entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main… any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind…

John Donne, Meditation XXVII

The basic premise of that idea is that we’re all interdependent, tied together in a convenient reality that allows us to coexist on this small planet. That same idea was built on by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose 1963 book Strength to Love expanded on the idea:

We are everlasting debtors to known and unknown men and women…. When we arise in the morning, we go into the bathroom where we reach for a sponge provided for us by a Pacific Islander. We reach for soap that is created for us by a Frenchman. The towel is provided by a Turk. Then at the table we drink coffee which is provided for us by a South American, or tea by a Chinese, or cocoa by a West African. Before we leave for our jobs, we are beholden to more than half the world.

That a child or youth could grow up devoid of influence from even the most “evil” source (which is the implication in a lot of this literature), including television, marketing, and governmental “control,” is simply unrealistic. We are all influenced by everything around us. Even by refusing to partake in popular society or mass consumption or any other form of personal/social/moral protest, we are reacting to those influences, thereby allowing them to influence us.

I can’t entertain the idea of the “free child” in a serious way because I don’t see it as a serious undertaking. I am a member of an extremely large and intertwined global community who cannot disconnect from that community. Sure, I can go climb in the Olympics and “get away from it all,” but even then I’m still in touch with my society. In that same way students attending alternative schools are still affected by mainstream schooling; youth enjoined in forums and councils where their voices are heard are still affected by youth discrimination, and; adults who want to ally with youth are still practicing adultism. Its the derelict truth of the world we live in, whether we like it or not.

That said, we do have opportunities to resist consumerism and challenge militarization and combat ignorance. We can work with young people to struggle for social justice and against youth segregation and for community. My ideal is more closely related to King’s vision of interdependence and connectivity, as the folks involved in the sustainability movement often pronounce. I know that we have to work together for that reality, rather than an escapist vision of an alternate reality in which humanity is displaced by individualistic selfishness, which is inherently bound up in anarchism and disconnection.

By the way, as many of you know, this isn’t just empty rhetoric for me. I have honestly sacrificed some potentially interesting connections throughout my work, even alienating friends at times because of my insistence on staying ingrained in the communities to which I belong. This is more important than ever for me, as my daughter is getting close to school age, and where this pathway of decision-making becomes life-altering for her, as well. We all have to make sacrifices, and this is the right reason to.

You Might Like…

Analyzing the Logic Behind Youth Voice

I’ve been concerned lately about why people are trying to do the youth voice activities they do. Too often their activities actually work against their stated intentions, actually defeating their goals and objectives. I have seen pattern emerge again and again in the programs I have learned about, either through my consulting, training, or research.

Following is a form I’ve developed I have developed to assess the logic behind youth voice programs. You are invited to use it – please cite me when you do.

Analyzing the Logic Behind Youth Voice
by Adam Fletcher – copyright 2008.

The Logic of [name of activity]
  1. The main purpose of this youth voice activity is… State as accurately as possible the planner’s purpose for the activity
  2. The key issue addressed by the program is… Figure out the key issue in the mind of the planner when s/he developed the activity
  3. The most important parts of this activity are… Figure out the experiences, information, and skills the planner is assuming participants have in order to participate in the activity
  4. The main outcomes of this activity are… Identify the main outcomes the planner intends from the different parts and the whole of this activity
  5. The main assumption(s) behind the planner’s thinking is/are… Figure out what the planner is taking for granted that might be questioned.
  6. The implications of this activity are… What consequences are likely to happen because of the activity?

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Notes on Youth Forums

Here’s my answer to an email I received today.

In our town this spring there will be three public issues forums/town hall meetings and we want to include youth voice. Two forums are on youth and alcohol and the third is on public education. In your experience, does it make sense to include youth in these forums or to hold separate youth-only forums?

The following is my response:

About the youth-exclusive versus adult-inclusive forums, here are my thoughts:

1. Create the climate. Its all about creating the climate reflecting your expectations for the forum. Regardless of whether you do or do not integrate youth and adults, you must make clear to all participants that you are striving to create a safe, inclusive environment – but before you do that you must actually think about what that means, particularly in comparison to what young people experience everyday. You know, the houses where parents encourage kids to be themselves and then frown when their teen goes goth. The schools where teachers preach to students about preparing for the future and then ban them from accessing the Internet. So create the climate that will engender the experience you want to foster.

2. Consider the essentials. Who is coming? What is allowed to be said – both overtly and subversively? Who is listening? Before you begin consider all the questions at

3. Examine the messages. What is communicated to a roomful of youth who have one adult at the front attesting to adults wanting to listen to youth voice? What is communicated to a single youth member of a BOD when the adults there say they value -all- youths’ voices? There are a lot of messages communicated intentionally and unintentionally, and we have to be aware of what is said.

4. Consider the outcomes. If you have a roomful of adults listening fishbowl-style to a group of youth those adults are going to be free to dismiss or ingest any one part of the experience however they want. If you have a roomful of youth with ten adults circling them those adults won’t get authentic voices, and if they do they may feel able to censor and edit at will. I mean, there is a lot of nuance and consideration here, but the point is what do you really want to see happen from the event. I would suggest that the most authentic dialog between youth and adults happens in small group settings – 6 to 8 participants – with one or two adults. There should be a technological recording apparatus that avoids adult or youth filtering what is said, along with individual note paper where participants can take their own notes.

5. Make accountability priority. I think that our society is so imbalanced because of the amount of accountability with foist onto young people – succeed in school, stay out of trouble, don’t stay out after 11pm, etc. – without any mutual accountability for adults. That’s not to say youth should have a say in setting adult curfews; rather, when was the last time students could hold their teachers accountable for failing to teach them? When was the last time youth could hold their parents accountable for treating them unfairly? And so forth.

So I didn’t give any direct answers; rather, I encourage people to consider their own specific needs for the activities they want to embark on.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Enough Rope To…

What does it mean when youth voice programs send young people into situations where we know there are hostile adults or complex problems that need preparations that young people don’t have?

Recently a close friend told me about a situation where her brother had the opportunity to speak in front of the city council about homeless and foster youth, which he had experienced. Rather than his program spending any time preparing him to speak strategically about his experience they let him go and talk. You know, they patted him on the back when he went up and said, “Good job!” when he was done – but honestly, he flew off the handle. Scrambling around his emotional landscape this young advocate poured his life’s experience on the floor. For some reason the program that brought him trusted that to be enough for him to have a positive experience, and they trusted the city council enough to make sense of his testimony and let it inform their decision-making.

I would wager that the city council was dismissive of him, at best. Its relatively easy to simply listen to youth voice, and then congratulate ourselves for that effort. Rather we need mechanisms in place that ensure the engagement of adults and youth in response to those voices. That’s what I try to illustrate in my Cycle of Meaningful Student Involvement – I just don’t know if I succeed.

Oftentimes I fall back on the metaphor of the 16-year-old and the keys to the car: We don’t just give a youth who wants to drive the keys and allow them to barrel down the Interstate at 75 miles an hour, and we shouldn’t do that with youth voice, either. Unfortunately I’m afraid that is also an excuse to simply dismiss youth involvement as needing too much work, but hey…

Let’s stop handing out just enough rope for young people to become sacrifices on the alter of youth voice. We have an obligation to do more than that.

You Might Like…

Whatever It Takes

Youth workers and teachers are often guilty of the same thing: They call on the kids who raise their hands. You know who I’m talking about, because just like me you’ve done it before. She’s the bright and articulate leader who knows the answer. He’s the quick and deft analyzer of information who holds the key to the activity. I think that inside of that dynamic there is a tension in a lot of youth voice activities that is rarely acknowledged.

Michael Fielding calls out this tension best in his Framework for Assessing Student Voice. He asks several simple questions. The next time you go marching into a youth voice activity you are facilitating I want you to ask yourself the following:

  • Who is allowed to speak?

  • To whom are they allowed to speak?

  • What are they allowed to speak about?

  • What language is encouraged / allowed?

  • Who decides the answer to these questions?

  • How are those decisions made?

  • How, when, where, to whom and how often are those decisions communicated?

I am beginning to think that we must do whatever it takes to engage those young people whose voices rarely get heard. If that means that youth-serving orgs give up a wall of the building specifically for graffiti then so be it – those voices must be heard. If that means that a committee meeting is spent surfing the web with students and adults looking for quality curriculum resources, then so be it – those voices must be heard. Music in the hallways, geocaching for community resources and skateboarding for peace must all be seen as options, because at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter what the specific activity was: its the experience of learning that comes from it that matters. We have to teach young people by demonstrating to young people that we value their voices equally to our own. Whatever it takes to do that, let’s get it done.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Principles of Authentic Youth Engagement

I have spent the last few months here in New York City working with the Cloud Institute for Sustainability Education. They are national leaders in the Educating for Sustainability movement, providing training, resources and network leadership for hundreds of schools across the country.

While here I’ve been building out their youth voice focus, and I have some interesting products coming. One of them is a series of case studies of schools that have strong youth voice elements. I have compiled the following checklist to help me think about their informing beliefs, and thought I should share it here. I’d love to here what you think!

Authentic Youth Engagement is…

  • Collective Activities are led by youth and adults together – not individually
  • Connected Activities embody interdependence and model it among youth and adults
  • Empowering Youth voice is a driving force throughout activities
  • Equitable Adults recognize young people have differing backgrounds that require different approaches
  • Focused Activities are appropriately outcome-driven
  • Healthy Respectful disagreement, speaking up, and other avenues that equalize disparities between youth and adults are at the core of the activity
  • Learning Young people gain skills, knowledge and tools to be effect agents of change
  • Mutually Beneficial Young people and adults acknowledge each other’s dreams, actions, outcomes and reflections
  • Relevant Activities are responsive to the lives of young people
  • Responsible Adults and youth develop and sustain their capacity to be “response-able”
  • Substantive Activity design and outcomes are designed to impact individuals, organizations, communities and society
  • Self-Motivated Young people feel driven to participate

I might be wrapping up a white paper on authentic youth engagement in sustainability education within the next week – let me know if you’d like to see a draft by emailing adam at freechild dot org.

You Might Like…

Expanding Youth Participation

A group in the United Kingdom just put out a useful PDF documenting a “pathway to participation.” YoMo is a “community interest company” that is committed to youth participation. Their work across the UK looks great, and I am enjoying reading their website and blog, and looking forward to reading their materials soon.

In the meantime, I have dug into their PDF and the blog entry about it and have decided that they are on the way to discovering something powerful. The author talks about creating this “pathway”:

The ‘pathway’ is the ‘journey’ that young people are able to take through the organisation – its how young people are able to progress from their initial involvement and then on to whatever positions of responsibility/involvement the organisation can offer them.

The challenge for me here is the linear thinking represented by the imagery of a “pathway.” One thing experience has shown me is that youth participation – in all of its vibrant, divergent and chaordic ways – is not linear. That means that in no way can – or should – young people and adults working together in partnership be expected move from “here” to “there” in a predictable way, no matter what adults want. There are rhythms to their involvement, patterns that emerge and submerge that can be sussed out and made obvious. But as for a pathway, I think it may be too elusive, to say nothing of confining, to predict.

Hart’s Ladder of Children’s Participation is predicated on this notion of linear involvement. The dilemma inherent in that popular tool is that sometimes it may appropriate for young people to merely participate as consultants rather than full partners – just as the opposite is true, too. We have to move past this kind of oversimplification and recognize that if the building is burning down we don’t need to build consensus – we just need to get outta here. The same is true at different times in different parts of our communities, and these types of models just don’t evidence that reality.

My most concentrated attempt thus far is the Freechild Measure for Social Change By and With Young People. In this piece I simply reinterpeted Hart’s rungs and laid them out in a spiral form. When I originally laid this out in 2005 I thought it was fine, but now I see that there is a lack of elegance and applicability in it, and perhaps that what draws me back to Hart’s Ladder itself. Its also why I can appreciate YoMo’s thinking, because frankly, I have tried to say the same thing myself.

We need new dreams, new visions for how to move this movement forward, instead of spinning our individual and collective heals, no matter which side of the world we’re on.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Adultism in Parenting: The Terrible Twos

The so-called “Terrible Twos” are a myth.

A Drunken Postmaster

Supposedly coined by a drunken postmaster in the 1800s, the phrase has become ubiquitous among new parents everywhere I hear anyone talking about children. I have raised a child through them and participated in the upbringing of a number of nieces and nephews, and every adult in my circle agrees that the so-called “Terrible Twos” are simply not real. Now, there are many terrible days when you are raising small children, days that are filled with excrement and urine and vomit, and I am under now misunderstanding those days are terrible. So are the days when my daughter, who is four, demonstrates her strong will beyond anything acceptable by adults. But there is no such thing as the Terrible Twos.

Adultism Expressed

WHY do I bring that up here? I believe that the labeling of the Terrible Twos are the near beginning of the lifelong scheme each of us face throughout our childhood, into our youth, and as young adults. That scheme is adultism. Meant to describe any bias towards adults and against youth, adultism casts a wide net over the hypocrisy and alienating practices in schools today. I firmly believe that no child should agree with everything a parent tells them, and because of that we should expect resistance. That resistence is often labelled “terrible twos”; unfortunately, the only thing terrible about it is the discrimination inherent in the label.

Moving Forward

Let’s move past our own adultism and embrace the new roles of children in our society. Instead of seeing screaming and yelling as resistence, let’s hear them as voices. Not all voices are comfortable or easy, and not all voices are easily pacified or understood. However, all voices should be heard. Among two year olds we should hear them as a child’s indication that they have a want or a need to be interpreted by adults – that’s our jobs. From there we can move forward.

3 Steps

Here are three steps we can all follow to move past our own adultism:

  1. Acknowledge Your Adultism. All parents are biased towards adults. We go to adults for advice on childraising, we learn how to change diapers from adults and we have many things for our kids that were made by adults for children. All parents are biased towards adults.
  2. Confront Your Own Injustice. If adultism in your parenting seems unjust to you, confront yourself. Check your bad behavior or attitudes. Watch your language and see your biases. When you address your own adultism, you will be a more effective ally to your own children. Discover new ways of being with your own children.
  3. Check Others. Don’t allow adultism among parents to go unchecked. Instead, call out others’ bad behaviors, wrong attitudes, unfair language and discrimination against their own children. Help them learn new ways of being that aren’t adultist.

After you’ve taken those steps, you’ll be farther ahead than the vast majority of people in our society, especially parents. That’s a place to start.

The Simplicity of Engagement

I admit it, I am guilty. For years I’ve been working to over-complicate youth engagement. In my partnerships with some of the leaders in the field of youth engagement we have sought to identify, explore, examine, re-identify, re-explore, and re-examine youth engagement in its parts and particulars. We have been looking for the sophisticated components, the complex inner-workings of a rather simple thing.

The closest I’ve come to finding that simplicity has been with my friend Greg Williamson, who used to be the student engagement guru at Washington State’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, and who is now among the best independent consultants in the Pacific Northwest, among other things. A few years ago during one of our brainstorming meetings Greg proposed a simple measure for determining youth engagement from a young person’s perspective. He said we could ask children and youth a really easy question, and let their testimony be the marker for determining whether youth engagement does or does not exist. That question? Do you feel engaged or do you feel detached?

In our conversations we decided that was the most simple, most apt way to illustrate the nature of youth engagement.

Now, I know there has to be some framing done, perhaps to the extent of asking the participant what their personal definition of “engagement” is or even sharing a definition with them, but I think this is a good start to finding an authentic, powerful, and simple way to get to the heart of youth engagement: Its about the young people. I want to get back to that place.

Oh, and thanks to Doug Smith for kicking out this graphic, and the others I’ve used throughout this blog.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!