Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Kids on Committees

Last week I wrote about some of the tricky dynamics that need to be sorted out when intentional communities raise kids—which most of them do [see my July 28 entry, It Takes a Child to Raise Some Issues in the Village]. Today I want to resume my focus on kids, this time from the governance perspective.

One of the primary missions of raising kids is to teach them to become responsible adults. Typically that requires giving them age-appropriate opportunities to try on what that means. This often starts out with asking the kid to bus their own plate to the kitchen sink, or to pick up their toys when play session is over. Later, there are expectations around chores. Eventually there are chances to try out their judgment once they earn a driver's license, or start facing the confusing dynamics of how to handle an 11 pm curfew when on a hot date.

Today I want to bore in on the possibilities of teaching citizenry—as well as enhancing group life—through encouraging kid participation in governance. This could range from attending plenaries, participating on committees, and even to taking on managerships.

(My daughter, Jo, just turned 23, and she's a food service manager at the University of Toledo. As young as you might think that is, she started taking on food manager responsibilities nine years ago, when she was in 8th grade at The Arthur Morgan School, a Quaker-based boarding school in Celo NC that had the wisdom to let Jo have her own day in charge of cooking for the entire school once a week. Although taking on such duties was not expected of the students, Jo asked for it and thrived on the opportunity. It turned out she was a better manager than a follower and the school got her best behavior that way. To be sure, this strategy is not going to be a good fit with every kid; I'm only telling the story because it might be a fit and the group can miss the chance if you're not looking for the possibility. Raising kids is not about cramming them all into the same suit; it's about tailoring the opportunities to suit the kid.)

Participation in community governance is obviously going to be age specific. While it won't make sense to give four-year-olds blocking power when discussing the consequences for people leaving scooters on the public sidewalk; it may be a good idea to include teens on the Common House committee, whose work includes norms around cleaning and sharing public spaces. (There's an old LBJ adage that applies here: "It's better to have them inside the tent pissing out, then outside the tent pissing in." And if you don't know what I'm talking about, then you've never lived with teens.)

It also may be topic specific. Kids may find management of the capital reserve fund a snooze, yet be surprisingly insightful when it comes to assessing technology upgrades for the common house, or how to handle limit setting for neighbor kids who act out of line.

The classic issue with child raising is how to manage the rebellious years, which usually straddle ages 13-19 and correlate positively with the emergence of hormones. If the community actively works to create openings for teens to have a say in community life, there will be less to rebel against.

Warning: this will not work if you're only talking about painting the Common House green in order to demonstrate the group's commitment to sustainability; that is, don't invite child input on community issues unless you're truly going to take their input seriously. I promise you: kids have an unfailingly accurate bullshit detector and hypocrisy will fool no one. This does not mean you have to do what they say to be taken seriously; it means you have to weigh their input just as you would coming from an adult. The kids are every bit as much a stakeholder in community life as the adults (unless you drive them out); I'm only suggesting the positive dynamics possible if you treat them equally. I know of no community that's suffered from over-estimating the capacity of their children
to meaningfully contribute to community life. At the same time, there are any number of groups who have lost their children's hearts by firmly keeping the door barred against their meaningful participation—all the while despairing of hope for the future, with children so blasé about continuing their parent's investment in community.

For the involvement of minors to be a good experience, it will be important to lay out clearly what their rights and responsibilities are (actually, this will be important for adults as well). It's OK to hold minors accountable to falling short on their promises; it's not OK to chide them for failing to meet expectations that were never spelled out.

If you want your children to grow up to be good citizens, I advise you to look deeply at ways to give them meaningful experience in governance at the earliest opportunities.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I was 13 in 8th grade.