I went to Attwell Farm Park in Worcestershire the other day – you should go, it’s especially fun for kids.  You can pet the fluffiest of fluffy rabbits, bounce on an inflated dome (only for kids – human kids, not the baby goat kind), feed the animals and they even have emus! While I was at the farm, I noticed a lot of parents yelling.  They were yelling because their children were not following orders.

We all want our children to be safe and as responsible adults often we feel that the boundaries we set are what ensure childrens’ safety, but do we get carried away with this sometimes? 

To establish this we have to look at context and the nature of children.  At a farm, children will naturally be very excited and be exposed to an array of inviting play ideas.  As adults, we forget the nuances that a place like this opens up to young minds.  For us in our adult minds, we probably anticipate gently stroking some animals, offering up food on a flattened palm, meandering around the yard and in the current climate, washing our hands frequently.  But for children, there will literally be thousands of thoughts and ideas racing through their heads, which manifest into physical action (resulting in learning outcomes, new brain synapses, happiness and more). The yelling essentially came down to parents simply wanting to have control.  A mother told her two children (who were around the age of six) to follow her when she instructed them to.  They didn’t want to and it sounded like it hadn’t been the first time she had asked/told them that day.  What struck me the most was how fierce the focus was on the children obeying her, rather than engaging with what they were finding so interesting, as they were clearly very absorbed in their environment.  I notice this kind of altercation occur between adults and children regularly.  Can we ever relax the doggedness of the lesson, ‘Do as you’re told’?  Genuinely?  That’s more of a request than a question.  If as adults we chose to reject what often arises as an emotional reaction to children not following our instructions, just for a couple of hours at a farm, what would happen?  A lot would happen!  How much of it would cause damage or harm to our children?  I am aware and experienced to note at this juncture that for some children with disabilities/learning disabilities, keeping on top of their every move can be a safeguarding necessity.  However, the focus I am trying to bring in here is that often, the expectations we set children in our adult minds are not relative to what their abilities are as children.  We must prioritise and make allowances for play, which in equal terms means respecting autonomy of oneself.  Why?  Ultimately, because what’s more important – enriching their existence, or enforcing subservience?

As a Drama Practitioner for Open Theatre Company, the principle of minimising/relaxing common expectations is crucial for success in connecting and working with children.  Turn taking is a prominent example.  Adults often strive to demonstrate fairness and equality and the common-held belief is that if we instil in children the importance of taking turns, then they will carry this on and uphold fairness and equality by their own volition, right?  But do we ever discern when this is not useful?  For example, if a child jumps their turn because they’ve had an impulse to perform in one of our sessions, who are we to jump the gun and prohibit their participation, just because it wasn’t in sequence with their turn?  Where do we place our value; on children’s creativity and freedom for expression, or on maintaining an arbitrary sequence?  The important thing is to have this consideration.  I’ve seen children’s confidence transform because the notion of turn taking has been eased so much that their focus becomes solely on the freedom to participate in the session, in their own unique way.  I’ve seen children understand and develop an appreciation for turn taking by the emotion incurred when their own turns have been allowed to be interrupted or even hijacked (empathy).  Similarly, I’ve seen patience yielded between children because over many sessions, they have come to see that what other people do can be equal or even more satisfying to experience than doing their own ideas immediately.  There have also been moments that were about to happen and could have been amazing but we will never know, because the child was abruptly told to stop because they’d already had a turn…

The question to repeatedly ask ourselves is, ‘Does this child need to be fed this instruction, or am I just uncomfortable with allowing them to express themselves in this way?’  It’s not wrong to feel uncomfortable, but do we ask ourselves why?  And are the parameters of control we exert over them actually holding our children back from doing or experiencing wonderful things?

By Alex Morey-Wiseman