Article 13 (freedom of expression) Every child must be free to express their thoughts and opinions and to access all kinds of information, as long as it is within the law.
Although it is one thing to generally accept freedom of expression as a basic human right, it’s quite another to actively respect another person’s freedom of expression, especially when
- doing so may be counter to our own practical, emotional or psychological comfort, and when
- the person in question is vulnerable and therefore easier to dominate.
First off, let’s look at the word freedom. Broken into two parts, we have “free” and “domination”, or the freedom to dominate. How pervasive this is across our mainstream Western culture – to equate ones liberty with the dominion over the liberty of others.
Such an idea is intrinsically divisive, presenting the notion that community equilibrium is an awkward dance of clashing boundaries, in which the weaker give way to the stronger. The greater the span of our freedom, the smaller that of those who would oppose us.
Should we choose instead to use the word liberty, we allow ourselves to envision a state of community equilibrium in which the rights of each person are valued equally, respected actively and sought after and expressed mutually. This perspective treats opposition as something to be assimilated, not conquered, as we adapt our own style to accommodate the styles of others. Compromise, communication and interdependence are central themes to liberty within a community, and these are certainly values worth instilling in our young.
Of course, as an adult ECCE practitioner, it would be very inappropriate for us to think that a child in our care posed a meaningful threat to our emotional or psychological state. As custodians of children, we must be as rivers – pour a cup of salt into a cup of water, and the water becomes salty and undrinkable. Pour a cup of salt into a river, and all traces of salt are quickly washed away by its moving current.
It is, however, a lot less hard to imagine perceiving a child who doesn’t believe in Santa Claus as a threat to the practical comfort of organising a group activity in December.
During my work placement in December, I witnessed my mentor instruct a little boy who did not believe in Santa Claus to “keep it to himself,” so as not to “upset the other children.” The boy was visibly distressed across the remainder of the activity, which involved colouring in a picture of Santa Claus. He kept looking like he wanted to speak up, but the thought of upsetting his classmates stopped him. Eventually he burst into tears and went to cry in the quiet corner, where he was consoled by another practitioner and told he could remain quietly until the end of the activity.
In this instance, my mentor perceived the child’s liberty of expression as a potential threat to the setting dynamic. No doubt her mind was plagued by visions of angry parents – “X here says he learned Santa wasn’t real during creche!” Etc.
However, stifling the emergence of a controversial voice within a learning setting is counter to the intellectual and emotional development of the entire group. Doing so is counter to their intellectual development because it deprives them from a thought experiment in which they compare opposing beliefs. It is counter to their emotional development because doing so deprives them of a lesson in which they learn that they can accept and be friends with people who do not share their same beliefs.
And what could be a gentler introduction to these two important themes of life than the questioning of Santa Claus? It’s very likely that when these themes surface in their future, the stakes will be higher.
Speaking of themes, it is in accordance with Aistear’s outlining of best practice that we facilitate the well-being of the children in our care, specifically through furnishing them with positive outlooks on learning and life, as well as encouraging them to embrace diversity. Respect, value and inclusion are all core tenets of Aistear’s approach to nurturing the social, psychological and creative well being of children.
Furthermore, if we return to the original legislation in question, we note that the child’s access to all kinds of information (provided it is within the law) is mandated. It further follows that to keep the other children in the setting from at the very least questioning the existence of Santa Claus is counter to the actual legislation put in place to promote and preserve their intellectual integrity.
If our aim is indeed to facilitate childrens’ development into confident and competent learners, as outlined within Aistear’s current guidelines, then what place does lying to them have in that? If, in accordance with Aistear’s fourth theme, we intend to further children’s development of increasingly complex ways of exploring, thinking, understanding and problem solving, what place does tricking them have in that?
Of course, Aistear recognises the parents or primary caregivers as the primary educators of children, and the link between home and ECCE setting is vital to promote a bond of cooperative attachment between the child, the setting and their home. And nobody wants X’s mum shouting at them at nine in the morning.
So, based on both the regulations for the rights of the child by the UN convention with unicef as well as on Aistear’s best practice guidelines, I conclude that ECCE practitioners reject any perceived obligation to favour one child’s family traditions over another, cultivating instead a learning environment which encourages healthy and respectful discussion around any topics which may arise.
For example, my mentor could have said to the non believer, “You don’t believe in Santa, but so-and-so’s family does.” She could have then prompted him to volunteer something he did believe in, or a custom his family did practice.
It might have been a good moment to sit back and observe what response his revelation elicited from the rest of the children, and allow them to discuss the issue freely amongst themselves. After all, at no point does an ECCE practitioner sign a document proclaiming to preserve the illusion of one fantastical childhood character or another. We are not bound to Santa, the tooth faerie or the easter bunny. These are fun ideas that families may or may not choose to partake in to varying degrees, and while we as individuals may have our own opinions on the rationale behind these choices, the establishment does not empower us to directly challenge them, nor are we obliged to uphold them.
Our duty lies in the preservation of children’s well being, the cultivation of their sense of identity and belonging and their development of communication, exploring and thinking skills. Unmediated conversations between a child and their peers is a crucial part of all that. In such a discussion, the role of an ECCE practitioner may simply be to influence the conversation towards the direction of mutual appreciation and respect for each other’s differences, as well as positively reinforcing the children’s inclination to be inquisitive and open minded in the face of diversity.
When a controversial voice makes itself heard, as curators of a community environment, we often feel the call to silence it for the sake of tranquility. And when the voice belongs to a child, underestimating its value is easy, and silencing it is even easier. It doesn’t take much to justify our actions to ourselves or to others, nor to trivialise any objection the child may have.
However, tranquility founded on the oppressive illusion of sameness is unstable and toxic. We must pursue a state of tranquility founded in mutual respect and acceptance of diversity.
It is crucial, then, that we recall to ourselves Aistear’s best practice guidelines – that our primary objective is not to keep everybody quiet and happy, but to raise a generation of well-adjusted, healthy and empathetic free thinkers.