Who owns your eyeballs? A story about children’s agency and choice.

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A while back, I was visiting a preschool to prepare for a workshop that I was providing their educators about children’s agency and choice. As I moved around the preschool room I noticed they had a list of around 70 ‘rules’ for children. Each rule was meticulously typed on a file-card, and individually laminated before being prominently displayed on a big wall. It was evident to me that someone really, really cared about these rules.

Some of the ‘rules’ were just an over-enthusiastic – but harmless – attempt to make a few social/ cultural norms more explicit. For example, one read: ‘We sit down when eating’ .

But one of the other rules jumped out at me. There, among the wall of laminated slips, was one that read ‘We keep our eyes forward’.

‘It’s their ideas’

I must have had a visible reaction, as one of the adults quickly explained: ‘Oh, we’re promoting children’s agency and choice. They came up with these rules. It’s their ideas’. A thousand questions ran through my head.

At first, I wondered how this rule might be monitored, let alone ‘enforced’? I wondered if a similar rule controlling micro body movements also applied adults working in the organisation? Did it apply to me as a visitor? What direction should I look? I wondered how children who have vision impairments, or who are Autistic, or who (like me) have a ‘lazy eye’ which wanders off on its own sometimes, might viewed in a world with this “rule”? Would our rule-breaking behaviour be seen as ‘naughty? Would there be consequences?

Secondly, I began to wonder what constitutes ‘forward’? If there is something interesting to look at on my shoe, should I bring my foot to eye-level to look at it. Or, I wondered, if I look down is that ‘forward’, because it is the direction my whole head is facing? Can I tilt my head to look up at someone who is taller than me? Or is ‘forward’ a whole-body thing, soldier-style, meaning that I (as a hobbit-statured person) must only address the belly button those taller than me? And can I use my own eyeballs to express myself (or perhaps even rest) – even if that means they are not facing forward?

Anything goes

I knew that my questions were perhaps a little irreverent, even if they were silent. After all, ensuring children having a voice in shaping their educational experiences is vitally important. So too is giving them agency about what happens to them in those services. This is arguably a feature of a well-functioning democracy, and ‘shared rule-making’ is one way of going about that. Who am I to say that these rules, in a community that is not my own, were not legitimate?

But then I began to think of some of the children I work with. Several sweet littles came to mind, who I know would – given the chance – vote for a rule that requires ‘We eat two slices of chocolate cake for breakfast every day’.

And with that example in mind, I would argue that simply typing up and laminating a rule – even if the majority agree to it – does not constitute ‘agency’ in any universe.

So, what is children’s agency and choice?

I am not sure I have a definitive answer on what, exactly, agency is. Nor a simple set of ‘how-to’ steps on improving children’s agency. But I do know that, when handled with intelligence, agency is an experience through which children can connect with, and voice what is authentically important to them. Asking whether ‘keeping my eyes forward’ captures something that is genuinely important to five-year olds is a good starting place.

I suspect that ‘agency’ is not only a noun, but a verb…an active process of contesting what we think we want. Inviting children (or adults) to create any rule they dream of must also invite them to consider the implications of those rules. What happens, for example, if you don’t feel hungry? Do you have to eat the chocolate cake anyway? Should we think about risks and consequences of our agency – particularly for those more vulnerable? For example, should the chocolate cake rule also apply to children who have diabetes? And, perhaps most importantly, does this rule actually strengthen our community…is it a rule that everyone is able to follow and which has equitable and just benefits? Or does it only privilege the chocolate cake chef?

Children are highly capable of considering these questions from a critical perspective. And without these questions, ‘agency’ is simply another form of entitlement. To put it simply, some ideas are best left unlaminated.

Making space for children’s agency and choice

In the end, children’s agency and voice may be not only be about the things children say they want on any given day. Instead, one of the most productive things that we may be able to do is to consider how we – as adults – exercise our own agency and choice when it comes to the power we hold over children. Letting go of controlling children’s eyeballs would likely be a good start. Supporting children to look in any direction they want, at all the wonders of the world, may be far a more meaningful form of agency.