In Context VIII by: Melinda Tsapatsaris

It’s what it means to be a progressive school - a full-scale member responsible for the society we live in, exercising good judgment personally and for the commonwealth - equal as a citizen in some interesting way. That’s the assumption: that we are equals.
— Deborah Meier

I saw Gloria Steinem speak in 1997 when I was a senior at Ohio University. I distinctly remember a dozen or so students leaving the auditorium throughout her talk, too uncomfortable with her message of gender equality. I remember how powerful and glorious she was to me—her name perfect. I was perplexed that Steinem’s message of equality was somehow too radical to those peers who left. The focus of Steinem’s talk that night also centered on the notion that the modeling of equality and democracy begins in our homes - that it is a parent’s job to run a democratic household. Now that I’m a parent, I’ll admit this notion is somewhat radical.

I believe in democracy in education through and through. My undergraduate program was centered on democracy in education: empowering children in the classroom to have voice, to have agency, to act. As a pre-service educator I was brought up on Dewey and Deborah Meier - the latter I heard last fall at the Progressive Education Network in Boston. She spoke specifically about democracy. She said, maybe even sort of shouted: “It’s what it means to be a progressive school - a full-scale member responsible for the society we live in, exercising good judgment personally and for the commonwealth - equal as a citizen in some interesting way. That’s the assumption: that we are equals.” Early in my career as a high school teacher, I asked students what they thought their grades should be (they were typically harder on themselves than me) before I assessed them, I integrated service learning into the studying of literature (in my first year teaching when my ninth graders read Of Mice and Men, we studied Appalachia’s particular brand of poverty); over the years I visited my students who were volunteering at their local polls on various election days. I could go on. Democracy is in my educator veins.

Westland certainly continues this trajectory…and then some. Last month I presented along with Board President Gillian Calof at Westland’s Governance Night on the topic of Democracy at Westland. We talked about the ways – on the program side and on the governance side - democracy is at the core of Westland’s mission and day-to day life. At Westland our children not only experience the systems of democracy - they experience what it feels like to have an equal presence. Their ideas are taken seriously because they have serious ideas.

I was talking to a Westland mom one day and she told me how she and her daughter were in an elevator on the way to a doctor’s appointment. A nice, elderly lady started making comments to and asking questions of the Westland student: “How old are you?” She’d reply. Then, the woman on the elevator would submit her commentary, slightly saccharin sweet, “Ohhh… 8! You sure don’t look 8. You’re tiny!” and so on. Our Westland student stuck with the conversation, dutifully answering the lady’s queries and managing her ongoing observations. The woman departed the elevator, the doors closed, and the girl looked up at her mom and stoically observed, “She never would have talked to you like that.” It’s true. This child - and I’d venture all Westland children - are used to being talked to - talked with - a tone of decency and respect. Our children know that they have agency. They run a school store; they themselves problem solve, as a group, conflicts that happen in real time; they grapple with differing perspectives; they publicly share their learning; they talk with experts; they go places. And if they are struggling to manage this hard work successfully, they get the helpful guidance of a teacher. As one teacher explained to me at the beginning of the school year, “The idea is that we're honest with children, that we care genuinely about what they think, we really do value their opinions, who they are as learners, who they are as people, as citizens.” Westland children know what it means to be part of a democracy.

But now I want to bring it back to Steinem and parenting. What does it mean to model democracy at home? It’s trickier I think. Personally, I get a little nervous, because I worry that democracy starts blurring with permissiveness. I ask myself, What’s the line between empowerment versus entitlement?

When reflecting on my own parenting, I oftentimes think about how I was parented. Growing up, mine was a household where I was a bit scared of my parents. There was bountiful love, but plenty of fear. At the core I was motivated to do well - to be good – partly out of this fear. I wonder about fellow parents out there who grew up in the 70’s and 80’s. How many were motivated by fear, by the motivation to please, the motivation to be liked, or to not get into trouble. How many parents rebelled because they butted against the feeling of not feeling honored or respected? There’s a part of me today, Ms. Democratic Educator herself, who thinks that a little fear might be good for my children. I remember reading Tina Fey’s Bossy Pants where Fey described her dad as a dad who would never have a daughter who got a Tweety Bird tattoo on her ankle. It just wouldn’t happen. I remember picturing my intimidating-looking Greek dad and thinking, “Exactly.” But then I go back to Steinem’s talk, and I’m inviting myself out of this notion that fear is good. I’m actively trying to unpack it and deconstruct it. I’m trying to repackage fear into something else. Instilling fear in my children is basically adultism – perpetuating that sense that I – because I’m an adult - am superior. I’m trying on the notion that I can set fair, firm appropriate boundaries to ultimately keep my children safe but not slip into adultism.

Last March I was at a training where a group of educators were specifically reflecting on adultism. I listened to a woman powerfully reflect upon her identity in the context of her gender and Japanese ancestry. She has two young girls who attend a progressive school in the Bay Area. She described her childhood household as having an emphasis on dutifully respecting one’s elders and where children were essentially seen, not heard. She described a recent event at her daughter’s school where she was tasked with keeping the children quiet backstage prior to a performance. It did not go well. She shared, “When I was young [ironic smile at the old adage], I feel like if an adult said, ‘Be quiet,’ we would have gotten quiet, immediately. That night with my daughters’ peers, there was this level of permissiveness and disrespect that felt… entitled and off-putting. I just have to wonder if we are doing our children a disservice by giving them too much power.”

When she shared, I found myself getting defensive, that she was somehow insinuating that a progressive school was creating this moment of disrespect. And, there was something about what she was saying that was resonating too. It was at this moment that I went back to Gloria Steinem’s urging that democracy must be modeled in our homes. “Progressive doesn’t equal permissive,” I wrote in my margins as I heard the woman reflect. I got some clarity. And I wrote down two notes for myself as a parent right there on the spot: “Keep it simple” and “Connect.” Here’s the fleshed out version of what I was thinking.

  1. Keep it Simple. First off, parenting doesn’t have to be as stressful as I sometimes (oftentimes?) make it. Last mother’s day, I was driving to Trader Joes (Trader Joes on Mothers’ Day, so apropos) listening to a KCRW bit on a reporter sharing nonwestern frameworks for parenting. She was describing Mayan culture and how, first of all, the very notion of parenting being stressful is ludicrous. Secondly, the entire paradigm of parenting is shifted from parenting being about control, to parenting being cooperative. I found this notion liberating, because I don’t like myself when I “power over” my children. Me: “PICK. UP. YOUR LEGOS NOW! I’ve asked you seven times now, I’ve put on three timers, and I’ve started to raise my voice.” Any one of my children: [Ignores me and continues to build with Legos.] Loud and mad does not a great parenting moment make and…ultimately powering over really never works. If I shift my framework to cooperation, while still remaining firm, we all come out better. “Let’s go. We’ll do team work. I’m going to help you get started picking up your Legos. I know it’s hard. Sometimes I hate picking up my things. Let’s see how fast we can do it.” Or something. Cooperative instead of controlling. Democracy instead of adultism. And if they don’t pick up the Legos, then I can have a conversation later. There’s always time. There is actually enough time; it doesn’t have to happen in the moment.

  2. To do so I’m going to quote a mentor of mine, The Center for Reflective Communities founder Regina Pally - twice. She once shared with me this: “Essentially, a parent’s job is just to be in a relationship with their children.” She also said, “A parent’s job is to become obsolete.” One thing I’ll say about my parents - while my childhood household wasn’t democratic in terms of rules, regulations, and systems, intellectually it was. I was treated as an equal for my ideas, and this was at the core of my positive relationship with my parents. My dad asked me my opinion on the news. We talked Red Sox and Celtics as equals. My mom and I had beautiful conversations on spirituality from a very young age on. If I’m in good relationship with my children, then when it comes time to assert some fair, firm, and friendly boundaries, it will go better. When conflict arises, we then can fall back on that healthy relationship. Last October Deborah Meier also shared: “Young people need to have their ideas taken seriously. We have their ideas and oftentimes think they’re just cute, and try to correct them. But democracy rests on people taking each other’s ideas seriously and having the confidence to look for evidence to support them. We should start with them early in this: it’s a core preparation for being a good and well-educated citizen.”

I think this current generation of parents can sometimes get a bad reputation. I often read about helicoptering or that we read too many books. My children’s preschool director, a wise, extraordinary woman who’s been running a preschool for decades (thus working with parents for decades) once commented to a group of us parents how excited she is about this wave of parents. She shared that she sees this current generation of parents she works with as being incredibly thoughtful. She sees this generation of parents and how we’re de-identifying from how we were parented in a way that is special to her. As I step out of a fear-based model and into a democratic model, I will invite myself to remember her words. I’ll continue to reflect, connect, and keep it all as simple as possible. I will not walk out of the auditorium.