But You’re the Adult



What does it mean to be an adult? What does it mean to be a child?

When your approach ends up resulting in children running around without jackets or shoes, dancing and singing loudly before nap time, and painting on the sink or running on the floor with paint on their feet – you get some double takes, naturally.

Adults who think that children must be manipulated for their own good have developed the attitude of a controlling parent who lacks faith in himself, the child, or humanity or himself. -Carl Rogers

Teachers and adults with good intentions tell me, in a whisper as if it is a secret I was never let in on before, that I am the adult and I can make rules for kids. I am told: Kids can handle rules.

After trying to define my approach in a multitude of ways: child-led, play-based, Reggio inspired, project approach, free range, unschooling – most don’t really feel true to who I am as a teacher. I might have to start calling myself an Anarchist Educator (yes, I see the irony in that).

Anarchy does not mean without rules, it means without rulers.


Who creates the line in the sand, over what rules and boundaries are okay and which are not? It’s okay to let children take risks – but not okay to let them make a mess. It’s okay to create curriculum based on their interests, but not okay to let them take their shoes off.

Of course, I struggle with this myself. I boast a lack of rules but then find myself stepping in when a mess seems to be overwhelming or I worry a transition will be rough. I am constantly aware of my power as an adult, and struggling to find a balance between facilitating and leading. Because of course you can lead even if you aren’t enforcing rules.

C wanted P to give her a toy.

C:”P, can you please give me that block, pretty pretty please?”

P: “No, I’m using it.”

C walks over to me upset and looks at me, tears forming.

Me: “You tried to ask her nicely. It didn’t work. How else could you convince her?”

C: “P, I want that block because I need it for my house.”

P: “Well no, because I am using it for my car.”

C again starts to get visibly emotional.

Me: “You tried asking her nicely, and telling her your plan. Neither worked. Do you know any other approaches?”

C looks at me and P, seeming to think through the various options in her mind.

C: “Pippa if you give me the block you can play my game with me. You can be in my house.”

P: “But…okay C, but, I want to make a car.”

C: “Well..if you give me the block…you can build your car in my house. It can be a house car!”

P: “Okay!”

C smiles at me and I summarize what just occurred: “First you tried to ask nicely, then you explained your plan. When neither worked you tried to convince P, and then finally found a compromise. You solved your own problem.”

C and P weren’t able to solve this problem because of pre-formed rules that force children to share, take turns, use kind words, or say Please and Thank You. C and P were able to solve this problem on their own, through trial and error, by figuring out social complexities and discovering that you can often get what you want through compromising and convincing. They have had many similar scenarios that did not work out as well – each time adding to the numbers of ways they knew of to convince their peers to listen to them. And by having a leader help facilitate, without making the experience about expectations and adult agendas.

Rules form by what works and what doesn’t. Hitting P wouldn’t have worked, therefore not hitting becomes an intrinsically motivated rule. Demanding doesn’t work, so C learns to use kind words like Please and Thank You.


Children do not need to be made to learn about the world, or shown how. They want, and know how. -John Holt

But is there a point where we should step in more?

I cringe at, “Children can handle rules.” Because it is a blanket statement. Yes, I KNOW children can handle rules. I trust that they are capable. I could also put them at a desk all day with worksheets and they will find a way to thrive.

But that doesn’t mean that’s what I should do.

Where is the line and is it different for different people? Is that okay or should we challenge ourselves and others to push those lines?

For me it used to be messes. Now it is centered more about an overall hectic environment. I get migraines easily and too much stimulation triggers them. I argue that it is logical then, since I have a concrete reasoning to limit hectic play. But do I really? Why are my needs automatically more important than theirs? Hectic “messy” play is just as valuable to them, as a calm environment that won’t trigger migraines is valuable to me.

Children need what we rarely give them in school – time for “messing about”. – John Holt

What if rather than using my innate power as an adult, I channeled my developed emotional intelligence, my higher reasoning and cognitive skills, and my years of experience to reason and explain, and worked with my classroom of children rather than working over and on top of them? What would that look like, and how would it feel? What if I talked to them about my migraines – explained what it felt like and what causes them. Would they react with empathy? Would they be any less likely to act in ways that trigger my migraines if I told them I felt one coming on in those moments?

As I find this middle ground and discover what works for me and my group of children, I hope I can stay true to my goals and expectations of myself. I also hope I can forgive myself when I inevitably falter.

Teaching is far from perfect. It’s messy, and in that mess is where you’ll craft your teaching and truly enjoy the journey. – Lisa Dabbs.







4 thoughts on “But You’re the Adult

  1. I’m not an educator, but a parent trying to take a thoughtful approach. My daughter is almost two and I have a hard time with the ‘toy struggles’ with the pre-verbal set since there isn’t much convincing she can yet do (she’s also currently much less willing to speak around other people than around us even when she does know the words to use). I usually end up ‘sportscasting’ for her but it can be hard to do that without making the parent of the other kid feel guilty (“You were playing with that block and Johnny took it” always seems to imply that they should have prevented Johnny in the first place…). Any thoughts?


    1. I think communication is usually key here. If they are families you play with often, a small talk about sportscasting and your expectation on sharing, taking turns, and conflict resolution. If they aren’t families you see often, and you don’t feel like communicating this to every new family your child interacts with, and I wouldn’t blame you, then maybe change your phrasing a bit to ensure the others that you are not expecting them to intervene. “You were playing with that play. Johnny took it. What would you like to do now?” Often times even just an empathetic look can be enough.

      Regardless, other families may intervene even if you don’t sportscast at all – everyone has different approaches, especially when there is a social/public factor. I would do your best to stay neutral, but know that you can only control how you approach your child, not how others approach theirs.

      I hope this helps, I myself am only an educator so have never been in this situation myself. My children and families all know each other and I guess I am lucky for that!


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