By Alicia Arends, YWCA Early Learning Center Administrator – Everyone knows that kids grow up to be adults. We talk at them incessantly about how we are preparing them for “the real world.” In our preparations, it’s easy to forget to let them speak. It’s doubly easy to forget that the world we are trying to prepare them for doesn’t actually exist yet. The “real” world we envision, the world of 2014, is our world, not theirs. Our world is informed by generations past and future but it is constantly built and rebuilt by us, the grown-ups.
Twenty years ago, in 1994 (was it really that long ago?) parents worked hard to prepare their children for college and the climb up the social ladder. In 2014, costs of higher education have skyrocketed, job security is an old wives’ tale, and most Millennials are communally-focused, using their college degrees to mop up at Starbucks, and admit that they would rather make $40,000 a year in a job they love than $100,000 a year in a job they find boring. Not even a job they hate, just one that’s kind of boring.
This is certainly not the fate their teachers and parents drilled them for. When adulthood finally came, many of parents’ and teachers’ “real world” lectures proved to be inapplicable. The number one thing people need to succeed now, according to Angela Duckworth, turns out to be grit. And they sure didn’t offer that as an elective in school.
Picture the year 2034. What do you see? If you’re like me, the answer can be wrapped up with a cartoonishly long “uhhhhhhhh”. Twenty years ago, we were all pretty sure that, by 2014, we’d either be living Jetsons-style with flying cars and robot maids, or that the world would be a desolate wasteland ruled by sentient evil computers. (Remember when every tv show had an episode where a computer did something computers are not even capable of doing now, came to life, and almost destroyed the town? Yeah, not our best look.)
The truth is just as cool, if a bit more mundane. The cars of 2014 may not fly but we do have the technology to run them with little to no oil. They come with GPS built in and we can use the cigarette lighters to charge our palm-sized (not very evil) computers. Even the U.S. Federal Highway Administration is investing in projects like Solar Roadways!
Like our 1994 imaginings of 2014, any of our current imaginings of 2034 are probably wildly dramatic and inaccurate at best. When we are preparing children for the infamous “real world”, we need to keep in mind that world has yet to be created and we have no idea what it will look like.
When I look around the YWCA Early Learning Center, I don’t just see 3, 4, and 5 year olds. I see tiny people who, in 2034, will be in their early twenties. I see people who will choose the next Disney stars, who will decide what kind of humor their generation will be known for, who will read more than any other generation before them and have rich, unique visions for the world. Tiny pre-grownups who, someday, will sigh impatiently at us. They will try their best to stay calm while they explain how the things we think are important are not even relevant anymore and would we please just shut up about it already.
Our children are not us. In 2034, they will not be attached to us, stretching into the world, able to be reeled back in and re-directed at a moment’s notice. They will be new. We may provide some of the building blocks but they will decide what they need, what to build, how to build it, and why to build it.
Whether they are our students, our god-babies, our foster kids, or legally ours; the best things we can teach our children are the things they and “the real world” will always need. Things like perseverance, resilience, empathy, confidence, humility, a lifelong dedication to learning, foresight, and the ability to love themselves and others.
So, next time you use the phrase “in the real world”, consider whether you are talking about their world, or yours. Ask yourself “Is this lesson important? Will it be relevant in twenty years or is it a dying cultural artifact with no business being around in 2034?”. As adults, we do a lot of telling. But it’s just as important to help our children learn to speak, even if it’s about how the grass is alien tentacles and you can’t walk on it or you’ll get sucked in. Ask them questions. What kind of aliens? Where did they come from? Why do they want to suck me into the earth? Always have questions. Make them think harder, help them speak more purposefully, so they can learn how to use, respect, and love their voices and the voices of others. Because, before we know it, the world will be theirs and they will have to listen, and they will also have to speak.
“Once you start to speak, people will yell at you. They will interrupt you, put you down and suggest it’s personal. And the world won’t end. And the speaking will get easier and easier. And you will find you have fallen in love with your own vision, which you may never have realized you had. And you will lose some friends and lovers, and realize you don’t miss them. And new ones will find you and cherish you. And you will still flirt and paint your nails, dress up and party, because, as I think Emma Goldman said, ‘If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.’ And at last you’ll know with surpassing certainty that only one thing is more frightening than speaking your truth. And that is not speaking.” – Audre Lorde