Why Trusting Kids is So Hard

Why it is so hard to trust our kids.A Life Learning Magazine reader recently asked me to publish more articles about trusting kids and how to to do it. I said I’d think about it – not because I don’t want to (trust is, after all, a foundation of unschooling) but because I’m not sure there is a set of how-to instructions. And, really, most of the articles in the magazine revolve around doing just that – either learning how in the first place or reinforcing the belief that kids can, indeed, be trusted.

Why is trusting kids so hard? Why do we find it so difficult to trust them not only to learn, but to eat properly, to develop “good manners” (meaning to treat others mindfully), to get enough sleep, and to generally do the right thing for themselves and others?

Trusting kids isn’t popular in our culture. People “know” that children and young people can’t make their own decisions, that they won’t learn unless taught, that they won’t say thank you unless we tell them to, that they’ll grow up to be slobs unless we bribe them to keep their bedrooms clean…. Our society says children can’t be trusted because they aren’t trustworthy, and that they are wild, loud, inconsiderate, and uninterested in learning about the world around them unless forced. They must be socialized and molded.

I think the reason trusting kids is hard is that we don’t trust ourselves and, therefore, can’t trust our children. And that’s because our parents and our teachers didn’t trust us. Growing up, most of us weren’t allowed to make our own decisions – what to wear, what and when to eat, whether or not we were cold, what friends to have, what to study and when, how to participate in family decision making. We were managed, not trusted. We were dictated to, not allowed to think. Then, as we became young adults, our parents and teachers worried about us – not realizing that their lack of trust and the resulting control had ill-prepared us to make our own decisions. In the end, their lack of trust often became a self-fulfilling prophecy and we messed up. Many people think that adolescent mistake-making is a rite of passage, an important part of growing up.

And, indeed, most of us learned from the mistakes we made. But some those mistakes have been very painful for us and other. And many of us have spent a lot of time and money on therapy, retreats, workshops, and self-help books in order to learn to trust ourselves. If that is still a work in process, we can pass along the legacy of our upbringing and schooling to our children.

Those of us who have decided there is another way need to be sure the pattern doesn’t get repeated. We need to give our children the message that they know what is best for them, and that we are available to help and guide them if they are confused, and want our help.

By choosing life learning, we have chosen to mindfully protect and encourage our children’s ability to live their lives with joy and the knowledge of who they are. Even if we’re still figuring things out for ourselves, we can listen to and treat our kids with respect. We can model self-respect, mindfulness, and care for ourselves and others.

Trusting kids is not something that most of us were programmed for, so we need to be patient with ourselves as we walk the alternative parenting/life learning path.