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… (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.